Eschew Obfuscation

Messaging is very important in politics. If commitment can be judged by execution, then messaging is not only the most important thing to the Republican Party and its public representatives, it’s the most important thing to anyone ever.

In any given news cycle you can depend on the right side of the aisle to be basically unified in their language, right down to the words they use. They didn’t “cut welfare,” they “enacted welfare reform.”

They didn’t talk about a “tax cut,” they talked about “tax relief.” Whether it’s by massive conspiracy or total coincidence, they all somehow seem to get on the same page with regard to any subject of debate; not only do they all uniformly agree on everything always, they all use the exact same phrases and formulations to discuss it. In this, they can rightly be praised for being exceptionally good at staying On Message.

They are not wrong to do this: anyone would if they could, including the perennially disorganized Democrats. After 30 years of electoral pummeling at the hands of the invincible GOP message machine, Democrats are finally starting catch on and are now trying to do it too. (They don’t want to “raise taxes,” they want to “raise revenue.”) But they are so late to the party and so bad at it, they are like the shambling, unrehearsed, out-of-tune Grateful Dead on their worst night compared to the GOP’s tight military precision, a la the original JB’s.

If that tight band has a bandleader — the guy who writes the tunes, makes sure everybody knows his parts, and tells everybody when to hit it and when to quit it, the Republicans’ James Brown has been Frank Luntz.

Luntz is one of the leading architects of Republican syntax over the last few election cycles. He is the man who suggested that everyone with an (R) by their name said “climate change” instead of “global warming” and “government takeover” instead of “healthcare reform.” We can thank him for guiding George W. Bush to victory in 2004 in part by renaming “inheritance tax” “the death tax.” (Because while few of us have an inheritance to defend from taxation, everybody dies and the idea of being taxed even in the grave is easy for anybody to hate.) He analyzes the issues of the day and recommends language to his clients (invariably Republican officeholders) to best turn public opinion to the clients’ position.

Luntz is also, it appears from his frequent appearances on The Colbert Report, a nice guy who takes his job seriously but sees the humor and the sport of it all; a guy who will throw elbows on the court but slap you on the back and buy you a Fribble after the game. 

You see what I mean? From these clips I get that Luntz is very intelligent and very savvy and not particularly interested in what his clients will do, or have done in the past, once he gets them into office; only that he gets them there and lives to spin another day. And on that front, his record speaks for itself.

So, anyone interested in current public discourse should find it very interesting, as I did, that Frank Luntz announced to the Republican Governors’ Association, as he did this week, “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort… They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

I think that may be overstating things: I doubt Occupy Wall Street is changing how many people are thinking about capitalism, but people do seem to be thinking about it, which is probably a good place to start grappling with the mess we seem to be in. But it seems that Frank wants to prevent that.

Critics of Occupy Wall Street complain that the movement is leaderless and faceless and has no clear demands, but this completely misses the point of the protests — which, to be clear, I am in no way involved with and have barely followed, despite spending my days in an office 1.4 miles from Zuccotti Park. I almost went down there when Radiohead was supposed to play, but I’m lame and I didn’t (and neither did Radiohead).

Apart from the lack of a singular voice, the big knock on the protest was the drums. Everyone complained that the drum circles were annoying, and that they proved that the whole thing was just a bunch of shiftless hippies. I have no doubt that they were annoying and less than powder-fresh, but they got on the news every day for a month. Isn’t that the whole point of a public protest? To make noise, to get attention? It seems to me that the point of Occupy Wall Street is the same as the point of a baby crying. The baby doesn’t have a unified voice either, so you have to consider the whole situation and try and figure out what’s wrong: did he get enough to eat? maybe he has gas. better check his diaper. is that a rash?

The media has been forced to do the same thing with Occupy Wall Street. Do they want to redistribute wealth? Overthrow capitalism? Or just reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act? (What is the Glass-Steagall Act?) With no spokesman or leader to get a quote from, reporters were forced to talk to a whole lot of people with a whole lot of grievances, some of which even made it into their stories.

With no clear agenda to give an easy thumbs-up or thumbs-down to — Ban The Bomb! Save The Whales! Protect The Rainforest! — the curious are forced to actually Google “occupy wall street” and read about a wide range of issues, most of them having to do with poverty and wealth and the value of hard work and rules and fairness and banking rules. “Occupy Wall Street” might as well be called “talk about Wall Street” — and if it were, I don’t think anyone could deny that it has been a major success. Love it or hate it, support or dismiss it, people have been talking about Occupy Wall Street, and the wide and varied topics under its umbrella, for quite a few news cycles, and that’s the entire point.

But don’t these hippies want to overthrow capitalism? Look: Things like this always draw out the crazies and their crazy pet issues that are never going anywhere. I heard a guy on the radio arguing in favor of shifting the U.S. economy away from money and to a “point system,” and of COURSE that’s the clip they’re going to run. The media did the same thing covering Tea Party protests. That didn’t mean everybody there was crazy, and it doesn’t here either. But if capitalism, warts and all, were the subject of a full, fair, Freedom-Of-Information-Act policy debate in this country, winner take all, I think it’s a given that capitalism would win easily on the merits of its best qualities, whatever its flaws. If capitalism ran against Obama in 2012, capitalism would win in a landslide, right? If People magazine had a Sexiest Economic System Alive issue, capitalism would be on the cover every year. I really don’t feel like capitalism is in danger. Recent events have shown that it is not quite perfect (am I a hopeless partisan naif just for saying that?), but look: if Grandpa drove his Buick into a median strip, would you euthanize him?  Or just get him new glasses? I don’t think anyone wants to Do Away With Capitalism; there just seem to be a few people with some thoughts on keeping it from driving into the median strip again.

Oddly enough, capitalism’s staunchest defenders seem reluctant to have that kind of warts-and-all debate — at least not without working the refs a little first. Messaging is important, so Frank Luntz offered his ten Do’s and Don’ts for how Republicans should discuss Occupy Wall Street to the assembled Republican State Governors last week, and they are quite telling:

1. Don’t say ‘capitalism.’ “I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’ ” Luntz said. “The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”

Here I think Frank gives the public too much credit. I’m not so sure people see a connection between a staunch set of anti-tax, anti-bank regulation policies and “defending Wall Street.” Also, maybe capitalism is immoral and maybe it isn’t, but at bottom that is what we’re talking about here, right?

2. Don’t say that the government ‘taxes the rich.’ Instead, tell them that the government ‘takes from the rich.’ “If you talk about raising taxes on the rich,” the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But  “if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes.”

This feels the same as calling a used car “Pre-Owned.”

3. Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the ‘middle class.’ Call them ‘hardworking taxpayers.’ “They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the ‘middle class’ and the public will say, I’m not sure about that. But defending ‘hardworking taxpayers’ and Republicans have the advantage.”

Traditionally, pretty much everyone in America has believed themselves to be “middle class.” Notice how no politician ever talks about the “upper class” or the “lower class?”  It’s because they know that poor people aspire to be middle class, and rich people don’t ever want to admit to being rich. (It’s not polite to talk about money.) But as unemployment stays high, it appears that some rent-paying, Hyundai-driving middle-class folks are starting to suspect that they may not be in the same middle class as that guy with the Lexus, the boat and the summer house. Either he’s risen out of the middle class or I’ve dropped below it, but we are not in the same class.

4. Don’t talk about ‘jobs.’ Talk about ‘careers.’ “Everyone in this room talks about ‘jobs,'” Luntz said. “Watch this.” He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a “job.” Few hands went up. Then he asked who wants a “career.” Almost every hand was raised. “So why are we talking about jobs?”

It seems to me that the major trick the GOP has pulled, in regard to getting poor people to vote for the interests of rich people, is in appealing to their aspirations. Poor people vote against raising the top marginal tax rate not because they believe in fairness, but because they don’t want to pay those rates in the event that they ever get rich themselves. Here again, by talking about “careers” instead of “jobs,” we’re appealing to aspiration rather than reality. But it may be a bridge too far. People just want to feed their families, and this might drive that home more than appeal to people’s ambitions. But what do I know? Frank’s record speaks for itself.

5. Don’t say ‘government spending.’ Call it ‘waste.’ “It’s not about ‘government spending.’ It’s about ‘waste.’ That’s what makes people angry.”

I think we can all agree on this: Waste is bad. Even the flamingest liberal doesn’t like to see waste. The question is exactly what is wasteful, which is another debate the Occupy Wall Street people are trying to start, which again I don’t see as a bad thing.

6. Don’t ever say you’re willing to ‘compromise.’ “If you talk about ‘compromise,’ they’ll say you’re selling out. Your side doesn’t want you to ‘compromise.’ What you use in that to replace it with is ‘cooperation.’ It means the same thing. But cooperation means you stick to your principles but still get the job done. Compromise says that you’re selling out those principles.”

No argument there: Just ask the Democrats that voted for Obama last time.

7. The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: ‘I get it.’ “First off, here are three words for you all: ‘I get it.’ . . . ‘I get that you’re angry. I get that you’ve seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system.”Then, he instructed, offer Republican solutions to the problem.

Tellingly, Frank did not take this opportunity to offer any such solutions, which I’m sure he could have gotten from one of his clients. Maybe he left them on the plane or something.

8. Out: ‘Entrepreneur.’ In: ‘Job creator.’Use the phrases “small business owners” and “job creators” instead of “entrepreneurs” and “innovators.”

This whole “Job creator” meme is an interesting one, firstly because it is a perfect example of how effectively Republicans define the terms of debate and the discipline they have in sticking to the script, but secondly because the primary goal of any business is to keep costs down and profits up. If a business owner could do literally everything himself, thus keeping every last penny of his profits, that is exactly what he would do. They don’t hire people because they’re in the mood to spread the wealth, they do it because they need the help. They are constantly looking for ways to maximize efficiency so they’ll need less help, so they can kick more of the profits upstairs, as the last decade or so of radical downsizing proves. Capitalism doesn’t really get more basic than that. So it’s a little puzzling to see this treated so black-and-white. Business owners very frequently do create jobs, but they are also on vigilant lookout for ways to eliminate them — not because they’re evil but because they’re in business to make money.

9. Don’t ever ask anyone to ‘sacrifice.’“There isn’t an American today in November of 2011 who doesn’t think they’ve already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to ‘sacrifice,’ they’re going to be be pretty angry at you. You talk about how ‘we’re all in this together.’ We either succeed together or we fail together.”

*dry heaving*

10. Always blame Washington. Tell them, “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it’s the policies over the past few years that have created this problem.”

I agree, with some small amendments: Washington’s policies in regard to Wall Street over the last 30 years or so have created this problem. Wait, I think that’s exactly what the protesters are saying! Maybe we can patch this up!

BONUS: Don’t say ‘bonus!’ Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a “bonus.” “If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you’re going to make people angry. It’s ‘pay for performance.'”

Now look: I don’t necessarily agree with everything these protesters are saying. I’m not even exactly sure what they are saying, and I have no interest in listening to it with live drum-circle accompaniment. But I am interested in the debate they have started, and hearing the issues debated fairly and on the merits. I think that as adults, we should all be interested in that.

Isn’t capitalism strong enough to withstand a little scrutiny? I really think it is. But every time I see one of Frank’s acolytes spouting all these clever rephrasings and reframings, and attempts to end the discussion before it even starts, I will remember that they are not actually thinking about what they are saying, but reciting talking points handed to them by a strategist who is really just playing a game, and who once said that having his professional metier called “Orwellian” was a high compliment. A “Pre-Owned” car isn’t any less Used, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who can see that.

Leave a Reply