Puttin' Out the Bone

The Right Words Are Essential to Conservative Power

Oh, my God. It's like Ohio State getting the University of Michigan play book before the big intrastate rivalry. I'm sitting here reading Frank Luntz's 100-page memo to top Republicans, "Learning from 2004 ... Winning in 2006."

This document is getting some play on Internet blogs and the media because of its detail, unabashedly manipulative language and comprehensiveness. It tells national Republican leaders, strategists and candidates what to say to win their elections. Statewide and local counterparts can take the drift from the document and apply it on their level as well.

Frank Luntz is a favorite with the conservative media. He runs the Luntz Research Group, but he's better known for doing on-camera focus groups during national elections. He's a total partisan and scribed this playbook for conservative Republican victories.

No one knows if he meant this tome to leak out, including to whiny liberal dweebs like me. My copy came from a political friend who got it from another political friend. For us junkies, it's wonderful reading.

But more importantly for Republicans, they get a step-by-step, issue-by-issue road map on how to frame the national topics of the day. Between the lines, we Democrats — call us liberal or progressive — can learn what Luntz thinks are our words that can hurt his side.

Here's some background. Republicans have been kicking my side's ass for more than 30 years in framing the arguments. Shortly after ultraconservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater got swamped by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Republicans began planning to not only win in the future but actually try to dominate the American culture.

So they formed conservative think tanks, developed conservative newspaper columnists, created conservative talk radio, opened Fox News and promoted a stable of conservative pundits to go on talking-head cable shows and news networks. In short, they set out to dominate communication in the United States, starting with the mantra that the entire American media is liberal. Read David Brock's The Republican Noise Machine for a full chronicle.

Then people like Luntz — though his specific work came much later — showed Republicans how to frame issues, how to describe the elements of the argument so as to tap into how people think. They urged the use of words that applied to values and emotions that move people, particularly the undecided voters. Progressive professor George Lakoff describes it in Don't Think of an Elephant and tries to show Democrats how to start a 30-year catch up process.

Lakoff describes the Republicans' best 10 words, the images that have worked for them. You know them better than most Procter & Gamble slogans: lower taxes, smaller government, free markets, strong defense and family values — the great frames of their agenda. Republican discipline guarantees that nearly every member of their party reads them from their political hymnals and repeats them during every election.

Of course, absurdity and hypocrisy abound. I mean, Republicans have created the largest government and deficits in history, and markets aren't really free. Under Republicans, they simply run jobs out of the country and rack up, again, the largest trade deficit in history.

The lower taxes are for their rich friends and big corporations, not for us regular people. In fact, the outcome of any federal tax reductions we might get are lost on immediate tax increases at lower levels of government.

Family values? Yeah, right. Modern day Republicans love fetuses and Terri Schiavo but don't care much for sick kids, soldiers returning from war, old people and the poor.

But as Luntz and Lakoff know, truth isn't really the issue. Properly framing the issues with ideas and values that preexist in a human's brain is what wins.

So in his memo, Luntz says to be sure to use words like "lawsuit abuse" and not "tort reform" as you try to stop big payouts to aggrieved plaintiffs, even very deserving ones. Say "private accounts" and not "privatization" as you try to sell President Bush's social security changes. Tell the people the economy is slow because of 9/11, not anything Republicans have done. Say that government regulations are hurting economic growth and not "outsourcing" of jobs, a word Luntz says Republicans should never use.

As you read his memo, you quickly see how protective he is of big business, the mother lode of funding for all his clients. Frames often seem to have their interests in mine. Doctors are heroes and lawyers are devils, according to Luntz.

Yet Lakoff theorizes in his book that the right's attack on attorneys has little to do with the actual politics of tort reform and more to do with trying to dry up their wealth, which Republicans believe is a Democratic candidate's mother lode of funding.

But never mind that you can't find logic as you work through this stuff or that truth will only be in the eye of the beholder's politics. It is the stuff of the period. University political science classes are immersed in it, and Democrats are finally embracing it from the Democratic National Committee to state party headquarters to right here in Hamilton County.

Several weeks ago some local political activists held a half-day seminar to teach the theory of framing political issues, including actually applying examples to local issues. Will it change the outcome of any elections at any level? It could. Remember, it's only that soft, small slither of undecided voters in the middle that's really in play during any election. Lots of things can move them: the weather, events close to the vote, who the candidates are and, yes, how the arguments are framed.

Republicans have known about that last one for years. Democrats are finally figuring it out.

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.

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