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It Isn t the Message Stupid by Joshua Green May 2005 Soon after the November elections leading Democrats agreed that the party was ailing and in dire need of a new direction a new focus new ideas to lead it forward It s critical we realize why the electorate voted the way it did Representative Bob Menendez of New Jersey the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus said of the party s devastating loss in the presidential election and its setbacks in both houses of Congress In February House Democratic lawmakers held a retreat in Virginia to hash out what to do next Something miraculous happened They recovered or at least they re behaving that way Setting aside all the frank talk about the need to re examine fundamentals they identified an altogether different sort of affliction The Democrats returned from Virginia not with an exit strategy for Iraq or a national security blueprint or an economic policy but with a book Don t Think of an Elephant Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley Lakoff s seductive thesis is that how you frame an idea largely determines the response to it George Miller a California congressman and an enthusiastic disciple gave a copy to each member of the caucus and the notion that messaging lies at the heart of the Democrats woes has had growing currency in the party ever since In essence messaging as described by Marc Cooper in last month s Atlantic is simply the process of selecting words that impart to voters whatever sentiment the author is pushing One famous example is the Republican effort to recast the estate tax with its implied application to landed aristocrats only as the much more menacing and less discriminating death tax Lakoff offers no new policy ideas Instead he suggests that the Democrats reposition the ones they already have and spruce up some unpopular terminology while they re at it He advocates referring to trial lawyers as public protection attorneys replacing taxes with membership fees and generally couching the entire Democratic message in palatable even deceptive language in order to simplify large ideas and disguise them behind innocent but powerful sounding phrases Cognitive linguistics may not rate with Iraq terrorism and health care in surveys of voters concerns it doesn t rate at all actually but it has achieved that status among a surprising number of Democratic leaders Lakoff has twice addressed the caucus on how to frame its policies and his book is a surprise best seller in Washington it has become as much a partisan totem as the lapel pin flags worn by Republicans Lakoff and a handful of other self appointed gurus have raised tactical phrasing to something approaching a religion With messaging efforts under way throughout the party more Democrats appear to be coming around to the belief that election results be damned what they stand for may not be the problem after all One of the minor ridiculous figures in Washington these days is an Internet entrepreneur named Richard Yanowitch who is pointing down another path to enlightenment He has put together a jargony memo and a working group dedicated to branding the Democrats the thought apparently being that as if it were a flagging brand of soda the party can be revived with snazzier packaging and a new sales pitch And while Lakoff enjoys the sponsorship of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Yanowitch has set up shop under the auspices of her Senate counterpart Harry Reid Yanowitch has established what has been described to me as a secret messaging group Though he rebuffed requests for an interview a member of this Masonic cabal leaked to me a roster of potential saviors of the Democratic Party even unlikelier than Lakoff Along with the usual pollsters and strategists it includes the internationally best selling mystery writer Harlan Coben creator of the Myron Bolitar series about the adventures of a hotheaded tenderhearted sports agent as Amazon com describes it Another member is R J Cutler the reality TV impresario behind last summer s Showtime series American Candidate modeled after American Idol which put the lie to H L Mencken s maxim that you can never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people As the show was conceived viewers would select a candidate to run for president in the serious if alarming hope that the winner would actually enter the race The show flopped Given Cutler s political affiliation it failed on another level too viewers chose a thirty eight year old Republican The idea seems to be that people like Coben and Cutler having moved the masses with their art possess mysterious alchemical skills that can just as easily be applied to politics Strangely the Democrats fixation with messaging has grown so intense as to revive in their eyes at least the standing of an avowed foe the Republican pollster and message meister Frank Luntz The wunderkind strategist who helped develop the terminology for Newt Gingrich s Contract With America Luntz has since drifted far from the inner circles of Republican power Most GOP insiders question both his skills and his professional priorities which seem to put his own celebrity above his party But superstitious Democrats cheered on by Lakoff now credit Luntz s framing and wordsmithery calling for tax relief rather than tax cuts for instance with much of the Republicans success over the past decade Not long ago when a memo Luntz had written on how Republicans should talk about Social Security leaked to the media there seemed to be only a single suspect Luntz of course and a single if singularly unlikely audience for its wisdom Most Republicans ignored the memo but the Democrats went into paroxysms of envy In a private meeting of officials the new party chairman Howard Dean vowed that he would make George Lakoff the Democrats Frank Luntz That s the kind of idea that passes for visionary when you re committed to the pretense that your party isn t short of ideas It s not too early to examine the results of all this linguistic plotting and scheming One of the opening salvos from the brand aware Democratic Party was the New Partnership for America s Future Heard of it No The plan outlined in a handy brochure is a predictable rejoinder to the Contract With America attention getting only in its lateness It consists of six core values to promote a strong and secure middle class Prosperity Opportunity Community To my untrained ear many of these

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