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Advancing Progressive Ideas

Frank Luntz and the Big Idea

Josh Berthume's picture

Frank Luntz's verbal sorcery cannot be trusted. On Sunday, the Washington Post ran an op/ed by Luntz about what's wrong with Republicans and why they seem to be terrible at politics lately. He points to all of the actual reasons — the war, the budget, the wedge politics — but he prescribes more of the same behavior for Republicans, asserting that it is what Americans want. I, surprisingly enough, disagree.

If you're not familiar with Frank Luntz and you have any interest in electoral politics, you are behind. Luntz was the chief architect of the Contract with America, and he produces a yearly briefing book for distribution to the Republican leadership on what words to use to describe certain issues and initiatives. He got people to start calling it the "death tax" instead of the "estate tax"; he is responsible for Exxon's surge in Energy Exploration and the decline in Drilling For Oil. Frank Luntz is a master of language; he thinks about how people are going to think about what he says or writes before he says or writes it, and he's usually right about the reaction he predicts.

So, when Frank Luntz writes an op/ed in which he tells Republicans to "be bold" in their proposals because that's what America wants, it is not an unconsidered, offhand remark. He means it. He is right that Americans are tired of the hypocrisy and failure represented by the Republican Party in 2006, and he's right that those swing voters who shifted control of both chambers of Congress to the Democratic Party will be in play and firmly in the driver's seat in 2008.

He goes on to argue that Americans want bold and simple ideas, and I disagree. Bold is not enough, and simple doesn't sell if it is combined with an idea that plays only to wedge politics. I can think of few ideas more bold or simple than invading Iraq, or calling Congress back to Washington to legislate morality on behalf of one person, as was the case with Terri Schiavo.

Americans like bold ideas because, as Luntz writes, we are dreamers. We want simple ideas because I think we are summarily untrusting of complexity in government. But more than simple ideas, or bold ideas, we want good ideas that are good for everyone.

Luntz offers a step by step process for Republicans to make it back into favor with the centrist swing voters by suggesting a few very conservative ideas. First he suggests doing away with earmarks, and he's right about that to an extent. I think it is better for government, but I think that unless you're dealing with gross misappropriation, Americans don't care, just like they don't care about who can put what amendments on the floor during debate, as Luntz himself points out.

Second, he calls for Republicans to stand for accountability by supporting a balanced budget amendment which makes it more difficult to raise taxes. This is the part I don't understand. While Republicans have argued for decades that they are the party of small government and responsible spending, that they are essentially conservative, this has never been the case, or at least not since men like Eisenhower and Goldwater prowled the terra. Republicans have historically been responsible for most soaring budget debacles, and most of the money goes to buy bombs and bullets and rockets. Caspar Weinberger called himself a fiscal puritan, cut most of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs under Richard Nixon, and then proceeded to spend $2 trillion dollars as Reagan's Secretary of Defense. That soaring record may have led to a budget deficit or two. It is a cycle that continues — the GOP maintains fiscal cred by not raising taxes and cutting social programs, but they always run up defense spending and they never have an honest way to pay for it.

So where is the accountability in making it more difficult to raise taxes but not requiring a responsible way to fund defense and military budgets? Government solves problems, and the best governments are in the solutions business. It is not the most sexy thing to undertake, policy-wise, but government must recognize what problems it has, and it must be able to discuss and solve those problems in an honest way. It isn't even what the government spends money on that irritates me, but rather that no plans were made to, for example, properly fund the Iraq War in a neutral-impact fashion. Instead, deficits run up and talk of raising taxes is taboo, and government trundles on, unaccountable due more to a lack of political will than a lack of wrongdoing.

Consider this paragraph from Luntz' piece:

This explains why so many people have lost patience with the current U.S. leadership. It is no wonder that 52 percent of voters in my election night survey said they were "mad as hell" about politics and politicians. Can you blame them? It doesn't matter whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, the outlook is grim: a war with no end in sight, rising costs of health care, borders that are poorly patrolled, schools that are failing, manufacturing that is disappearing, and a culture that is coarsening.

These are direct results of failed Republican policies. People realized who was responsible for all of these things and in concert decided to hold them accountable by voting them out of office. To say that accountability is absent from government, as Luntz implies, is incorrect; to state that Republicans will return accountability to government is a linguistic construction meant to recast the entire case of government problems as a series of accidents, or hard-luck occurrences that couldn't be avoided, rather than as the result of Republican policies that weren't ever going to work.

I told you when we started that Luntz is a verbal sorcerer, and through the course of this article, through what seems to be an open letter to Republicans imploring them to clean up their act, Luntz shifts the blame from Republicans to circumstance. He exonerates them while implying that Republicans are the only ones who can fix these problems, and if they are very good boys and girls, they will be given an opportunity to fix all of those problems with mysterious sources in American government.

Luntz often wears the mantle of concerned big brother, chiding the GOP on its mistakes during punditry newshours. However, the language he puts out is just as engineered as anything you've ever seen from a campaign, and engineered more competently, too. He is good at what he does, but he is a team player. You can look for more efforts similar to this preview from Republicans over the next several months. Every effort will be made to shift blame away from the deposed GOP majority that just got thrown out to some neutral, nebulous, fate-driven crossroads of occurrence. Then, when all of the messes aren't entirely cleaned up in 15 months or so, they will blame the Democratic leaders who have had their chance to fix massive inherited problems and failed to do so. You just watch.

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