June 21, 2004

Opposing Luntz' Talking Points

I write a fair amount here about political rhetoric and psychology. The granddaddy of Republican Rhetoric is Frank Luntz. This is the guy that puts together all the phraseology that is so infuriating because we liberals can tell that it's horsecrap, even though we recognize that it sounds good. It's convincing to way too many people out there.

Atrios got his hands on one of the latest issues of Luntz' talking points. Let's review some of it here.

Communicating the Principles of Prevention & Protection in the War On Terror

The overwhelming amount of language in this document is intended to create a lexicon for explaining the policy of "preemption" and the "War in Iraq."

However, you will not find any instance in which we suggest that you use the actual word "preemption," or the phrase "The War in Iraq" to communicate your policies to the American public. To do so is to undermine your message from the start. But those are not the right words to use.

Your efforts are about "the principles of prevention and protection" in the greater "War on Terror."

Please do not underestimate the importance of these rhetorical nuances. Let us understand the stark reality of public opinion which provides the context for this language research. Like it or not, the situation in Iraq is the poster-child for the War on Terror. It is today's ground zero. You must develop a better way to talk about Iraq in the greater context of the War on Terror.

Now, what are some good ways to oppose these talking points?

First, Luntz pitches us a big fat softball. Obviously, something about "preemption" doesn't work very well for their message. Why would that be?

"Preemption" implies stopping something that may or may not have occurred in the first place. "Prevention" implies stopping something that is otherwise inevitable.

"Prevention" is also a comforting word. It implies a guarantee. This thing that was definitely going to happen will now not happen, which means you don't even have to think about what it was going to be.

And we know that this is what they actually want. They want us to believe that something Will happen, that their policies will Keep it from happening, and that we don't have to Think about it.

Obviously, these attitudes don't serve an informed electorate. Now, our electorate isn't necessarily interested in being informed, but in order for them to make the right choice of who to vote for, we have to convince them not only that our candidate will solve the problem, but is in fact taking the problem seriously in the first place - which means exposing the other candidate as someone who is not taking it seriously.

So, we say the part of their argument that they are trying to leave unsaid, and then we show how it's ridiculous. It's like the opposite of a straw man - we're not propping up a ridiculous argument that our opponent isn't making. We're exposing a ridiculous argument that our opponent is making.

Their first implication is that they are preventing something. Point out that they have never actually identified what it is they are preventing - they've never shown that something was certain to happen, that is now less likely to happen. Ask rhetorically, "What did invading Iraq improve for us? What are we safer from? What were we in danger of that we are not in danger of anymore?"

The other part of their ridiculous argument is that you can tell that their only hope is to keep Iraq connected to the War On Terror. This is because they are extraordinarily vulnerable to the idea of Iraq being a distraction to the War On Terror. They cannot let this idea take hold of the American people.

Invading Iraq protected us from nothing. Invading Iraq made us more susceptible to Iraq-sponsored terrorism, not less. We were winning the War On Terror, but the decision to invade Iraq distracted us from that goal, and now we are in danger of losing the War On Terror. We have fallen seriously behind, and it is vitally important to our nation's security to start implementing policies that will reduce the threat of global terrorism.

More Luntz:

What Matters Most
  1. "9/11 changed everything" is the context by which everything follows. No speech about homeland security or Iraq should being without a reference to 9/11.
  2. The principles of "prevention and protection" still have universal support and should be addressed prior to talking about Iraq.
  3. "Prevention at home can require aggressive action abroad" is the best way to link a principle the public supports with the policies of the Administration. "It is better to fight the War on Terror on the streets of Baghdad than on the streets of New York or Washington."
  4. "Terrorism has no boundaries, and neither should efforts to prevent it." Talk about how terrorism has taken the lives of the British, the Spanish, Italians, Germans, Israelis, innocents from all across the globe. Remind listeners that this is truly an international challenge. "Americans are not the only target."
  5. "The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein." Enough said.
First, go ahead and experience the willies, because this certainly warrants it.

One great way to oppose this is just to quote item #1, and attribute it to Frank Luntz' GOP Talking Points. It proves there is a deliberate attempt to link Iraq to 9/11.

But the GOP has owned 9/11 for too long. 9/11 meant something else, other than the need for carpet bombing, and it's not convenient to the GOP. A good Democratic speechwriter could weave in these themes and reclaim 9/11.

9/11 was a day when an enemy thought they would break us, but instead they brought us closer together. On the day of 9/11, two towers came tumbling down, and instead of everyone in New York City hiding in their houses, they lined up around the block to give blood. Our citizens spilled blood, and we lined up around the block to give more. There is nothing that symbolizes America's strength to me more than that image. I know that nationwide, we all started valuing human connections a bit more after that day. Overseas, they see us as imperialists, because of our GOP policies. But our true identities are that of the scrappy underdogs. Ingenuity, individuality, and above all, heart. Terrorists can try to hit us, and they may hit us harder than they've hit us yet, but they're still destined to lose, because they don't understand us.

As for "prevention and protection", the relevant question is still "from what?" What did invading Iraq secure us from? See above.

Point number Three is a complete platitude. As with most platitudes, it's best to either ask for an example, or labor to come up with one and show how they don't work. Try to explain some sort of American disaster that was likely before invading Iraq, and isn't likely now. As for "Better Baghdad than Washington", ask for their evidence that invading Baghdad prevented a planned attack on Washington.

As for number four, just agree with it. There's nothing wrong with the point. But if it's used in defense of invading Iraq, ask again what terrorism invading Iraq secured us from.

And for number five, agree wholeheartedly. But then ask, "But is the world better off with Saddam Hussein being replaced with two hundred Osama bin Ladens?"

All of those points are reaction points, however. The point to use to get out in front is to argue for better protection from terrorism, to make the point that invading Iraq has made us less safe from it, and that it was a distraction from the War On Terror.

Remember, with Bush, the point isn't that he lied. Republican voters will defend a lie if they see it as being in service to an honorable agenda. The point is that Bush was wrong. That is what is unforgiveable to GOP voters. Bush followed his instincts on what would make us safer from terrorism, his instincts were grossly wrong, and we're going to pay for it if we don't make changes now.

Posted by Curt at June 21, 2004 07:43 PM


A more powerful reframe, credit Lakoff, is that Bush betrayed us.

Posted by: shari at June 22, 2004 04:05 PM

I'm not so sure about betraying. I think it's great for the base, but it involves convincing people that might otherwise support us that Bush didn't even have good intentions. Wouldn't it be more convincing to the centrists to make the point that Bush may have had good intentions, but that his leadership instincts have simply proven to be extraordinarily poor? Damaging to our interests, even.

Posted by: tunesmith at June 22, 2004 04:20 PM

At the very least, he isn't meeting his own stated goals.

If national security or protection is important, why is he doing [x] instead of [y]? If the War on Terror is such a priority, why did he leave Afghanistan under-defended?

Bush's own words and actions are incrimination enough. Once we establish that clearly, we can go directly to the issue of betrayal and doing right by the country.

Posted by: Joe Medina at June 22, 2004 10:14 PM

Tunesmith: good points and I'm still up in the air about it all because I'm not sure what will help the most with cognitive dissonance.

I like betrayal because it's such a powerful word. It depicts the process more accurately, cutting right through all the bullshit.

I think betrayal is a term large enough to include the idea that dubya does have good intentions but he just doesn't have the ability to execute his intentions.

Posted by: shari at June 24, 2004 03:45 PM

Perhaps the best frame for use in this case is to point out that Bush and his policies have weakened us, not made us stronger. He campaigns relentlessly on the idea of strength, but he's stretched our military perilously thin, he's damaged or destroyed world opinion and goodwill, and he's drawn off crucial personnel and resources that we need to protect us at home.

He is weak, his policies have made us weaker, and our peril is now greater than ever. That must be our primary message.

Posted by: Brian Dalton at October 21, 2004 10:34 PM
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