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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

The Origin of Message

“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.” — Ingrid Bengis

A quick online search for the concept “message development” leads to thousands of websites offering guidance on how to develop message, rational for the development of message, some charming metaphors for the process (I hear it’s like the blues), and a few folks who would be happy to assist you in your development needs, for a small fee. “Message” has become a central figure in modern campaigns, and the political lexicon has grown to accommodate its role. How many times have we watched the MSNBC talking heads question a candidate’s ability to “stay on message”, or sat at the back of the local party’s annual chili supper cringing when we hear our candidates “stray from the message”? Message plays a large role in our political lives. Let’s take a few minutes to remember why.

It is not overstating the situation to say the basics of message development go back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. His foundational work outlined the purposes of public speech and deliberation and gave guidance for the effective use of persuasion. Although the term rhetoric has changed in popular meaning over time and is now equated with the idea of all talk and no action, it is critical for politicos to understand its importance and meaning. Aristotle said it best when he defined rhetoric as the available means of persuasion in each situation. Message is simply that- choosing the best language and argument structures available to convince audiences to vote for our candidates and support our causes.

Modern thinkers have not hesitated to comment on the state of message. Entire university departments are dedicated to the study of message development, and countless students (including me) struggle with pages of text analysis in hopes of developing a better understanding of what makes candidates persuasive. George Lakoff, professor at the University of California Berkeley made a splash in late 2004 with his book Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Lakoff calls the concept “framing” in his writings, but it comes back to the process that scholars have focused on since Aristotle’s day: how do we most effectively use language to create change?

Lakoff argued progressives must embrace the power of language if we hope to see progress. He outlined a strategy for connecting issues to core values that the Democratic National Committee has done a great job of implementing. Lakoff ends his book with recommendations for progressives who are engaged in the debate. He said, “ Show respect. Respond by reframing. Think and talk at the level of values. Say what you believe.”

We witness message in action everyday. The current presidential race offers countless examples of candidate messaging. My favorite message strategy to follow right now is the candidates’ responses to the proposed troop surge in Iraq. The three leading contenders for the Democratic nomination carefully crafted precise, tough language in his or her description of the current situation, but differed in plans for the future of the Iraqi war.

Senators Clinton, Obama, and Edwards each released statements outlining their positions concerning an Iraq war escalation following President Bush’s announcement of the new plan. In a press statement on January 10, 2007, Senator Clinton described the president’s plan as a continuation of a failed policy and stated her opposition to a troop surge. She highlighted her appreciation of the hard work of the troops on the ground and resisted the president’s call for a troop increase.

Senator Obama spoke about the proposed troop surge on the Senate floor on January 19, 2007. He also outlined his opposition to increasing the number of troops in Iraq and questioned the president’s veracity on the subject considering the failures of the administration’s Iraq policy thus far. His lengthy statement highlighted some of the failures in the prosecution of the war and closed by stating his hope that Congress does not try to “micromanage” the war but does take action to limit its growth.

Senator Edwards spoke to the press about the president’s plan on January 9, 2007. He described the plan as “a grave mistake” and called on members of Congress to block funding for an increase in troops. Edwards went on to outline his proposal to immediately withdraw 40,000-50,000 troops from Iraq and to develop a strategic plan to turn over Iraqi security to the Iraqi people.

These three responses demonstrate carefully crafted messages in a tight presidential primary. The candidates employed messaging strategy to set themselves apart from the rest of the candidate field. Senator Clinton seemed more conservative in her statement by focusing on what should not be done in Iraq (troop escalation) without any call for future action. Senator Obama seemed to hold the middle ground with his indictments of a failed war effort and a call to Congress to be careful in its efforts to limit the war. Senator Edwards positioned himself to the left of the other two candidates by calling on Congress to refuse funding a troop surge and outlining his plan to begin bringing troops home immediately. They have positioned themselves for the next 12 to 14 months of campaigning, and these messages about the troop escalation may very well become the determining factor in the outcome of the primary.

Whether you look at language choice as rhetoric, or framing, or message development, it is critical to recognize the power that organized, thoughtful message strategies hold for our candidates and our Party. We must move beyond the cynical notion that strategic message development is manipulative and work together to get our Party on message.

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