A BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
By Bill Berkowitz
Frank Luntz’s World of Word-craft
If one man can single-handedly poison the debate over significant issues in America that man is Frank Luntz, the right-wing messaging guru who intends to turn the battle over regulatory reform into a repeat of the fight over healthcare reform.
Frank Luntz is above all else a practical man. Everything he does has been carefully calculated, weighed, and measured, be it his focus groups, his questionable “fair and balanced” polling, or his Instant Response dial sessions. And there are words. Words that influence political campaigns; words that sway public opinion; words that confuse; words that deceive. Most of all, words that win. If you’re looking for poetry do not come knocking of Luntz’s door. If you’re looking for color, you’ll not discover a Luntzian rainbow. What you will find these days, however, is his Mighty Wurlitzer of words cranked up to full blast.
If Luntz has his druthers, he will help turn the battle over regulatory reform into a repeat of the fight over healthcare reform; a knock-down, dragged-out process that in the end will lead to more confusion, more cynicism, and more stasis. (Luntz instructs clients to use the word “more” as often as possible.)
In a new 17-page memo dated January 2010, titled "The Language of Financial Reform" -- obtained by the Huffington Post's Sam Stein – Luntz provided a blueprint for a Republican Party committed to hanging on to its “Just say No” until at least the votes are counted in November.
There is no doubting that Luntz is a pro’s pro when it comes to political strategizing, polling and messaging. Over the years, he has taken some pretty good shots, from being reprimanded in 1997 by the American Association for Public Opinion Research and censored in 2000 for mischaracterizing poll results by the National Council on Public Polls, to being called an “moron” by Bill McInturff, the chief pollster for John McCain's presidential campaign, at a National Journal event shortly after the 2008 election. Nevertheless, for nearly two decades he has ’s been reasonably successful at framing and re-framing messages for the Republican Party -- and a sub-set of related conservative organizations and corporate entities -- going back to 1994’s “Contract with America” – co-authored with Newt Gingrich – which led to the party’s take over of Congress for the first time in a generation.
Over the past nearly two decades, Luntz, the author of “Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear,” has not only helped the Republican Party develop its messaging, but he has also kind of developed his persona. Where once he seemed a generally insufferable smarty-pants during appearances on cable news programs (especially the Fox News Channel), he has now somewhat modified that affect, at least in other venues. On an appearance with Bill Maher’s HBO program “Real Time” – Maher introduced him by calling him “the guru of politics” -- Luntz displayed an unexpected affability and sense of humor, which included being able to laugh at himself.
Now, after a brief falling out with GOP congressional leadership, Luntz is back in the party’s good graces, bringing it new ideas about how it can continue to pounce on the Obama Administration’s every move and turn its “Just Say No” mantra into concrete victories in November’s mid-term elections.
Luntz is a serious man with a set of serious tasks; he has done his best to help stymie healthcare reform, and now he hopes to do the same for any Obama Administration proposals related to financial accountability.
The methodology is fairly simple: Openly recognize that there is a problem, a crisis if you will, and then advocate on behalf of the interests that caused the problem in the first place. In “The Language of Financial Reform,” Luntz makes it clear that Republicans must acknowledge the financial “crisis,” and “Above all else, never EVER minimize the pain” that people are suffering.
With that in mind, Luntz pointed out that it’s important to set the crisis in context, because while Americans agree there is a crisis, they are “divided” on its cause. According to Luntz’s polling, 36% of Americans blame the crisis on “individuals who took out loans they could not afford”; 34% blame “Washington”; and, 30% blame “Wall Street.” Luntz asks: “What industries bear the brunt of the blame?” 33% say home mortgage companies and 31% say banks.
In addition to recognizing that Americans are divided on the cause of the crisis, Luntz’s memo offers 19 additional points, along with the specialty of the house; “Words That Work”:
2) “You must acknowledge the need for reform that ensures this NEVER happens again”;
3) “Now, more than ever, the American people question the government’s ability to effectively address the issue” – “Washington’s incompetence is the common ground on which you can build support”;
4) “Public outrage about the bailout of banks and Wall Street is a simmering time bomb set to go off on Election Day”;
5) “The public is angriest about lobbyist loopholes”;
6) “You must be an agent of change”;
7) “Demand accountability – government accountability”;
8) “More bloated government bureaucracy is not the solution”;
9) “Devil is in the details” – Americans want to know “what is in the fine print” of any proposed legislation;
10) “Caution: unintended consequences ahead” – “What will be the effects and impact of the CFPA [Consumer Financial Protection Act]?”;
11) “Enforcement of current law trumps creation of new laws”;
12) “The bailout provisions get the most visceral reaction”;
13) “’Bureaucrats’ are worse than ‘bureaucracies’”;
14) “Americans want to end the legalese and confusion in contracts”;
15) “Just the facts ma’am”;
16) “Personalize the impact”;
17) “It’s not reform” – “This is not a reform bill. It is the ‘Stop the Big Bank Bailout bill.’ This is important,” Luntz points out.;
18) “Small business ownership is about the American Dream”;
19) “No Surprise here” – “The strongest image ad we tested pertained to the bailout provisions and the ‘lobbyist loopholes’ for the casino industry.”;
20) “The Final Word” – “The department store Syms used the slogan ‘an educated customer is out best customer.’ We could easily say an educated citizen is the biggest opponent or, your biggest ally against the creation of the Financial Reform bill and the CFPA.”
Think Progress recently pointed out that Luntz’s “client list reveals that he is in fact being paid by the finance industry”:
– “Luntz client Ameriquest Mortgages: The proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) would eliminate predatory mortgages. Ameriquest, America’s ’sub-prime leader,’ has been prosecuted by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal for inflating property values so borrowers could get bigger loans, imposing upfront fees without reducing interest rates as promised, and intentionally deceiving lenders with hidden penalties and interest rates on final loan documents.”
“Luntz clients Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns: Under proposed financial reform, big banks, like Luntz clients Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, would face a new structure designed to police financial products, prohibit predatory ones, and require clear forms and disclosures. The CFPA would also help regulate hidden bank fees and other bank abuses.”
“Luntz client American Express: The CFPA would regulate the credit card industry, preventing predatory interest rates and fees.
Déjà vu all over again
If much of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is consistent with the Luntz playbook for defeating healthcare reform. In his 28-page report titled “The Language of Health Care 2009," Luntz laid out “The 10 Rules for Stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of Health Care.” Anyone that has followed the health care reform from debate from the very beginning will not only recognize a number of the following talking points, but will likely think to themselves, “Hey, I’ve heard those lines before.” In June of last year, Media Matters for America pointed out that in a press release issued by House Minority Leader John Boehner “criticizing a health care report by President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers,” Rep. Boehner use five Luntz-created talking points in one sentence.
After laying out his talking points, Luntz emphatically states that Republicans “MUST be vocally and passionately on the side of reform.”
The talking points:
1) “Humanize your approach” by talking only about individuals and not the “healthcare system”;
2) “Acknowledge the ‘crisis’ or suffer the consequences” – reframe the meaning of “crisis.” The script: “If you’re one of the millions who can’t afford healthcare, it is a crisis.” “Or better yet” suggests Luntz: “If some bureaucrat puts himself between you and your doctor, denying you exactly what you need, that’s a crisis”;
3) “’Time’ is the government healthcare killer” – “Delayed care is denied care.” The script: “Waiting to buy a car or even a house won’t kill you. But waiting for the healthcare you need – could. Delayed healthcare is denied care.”;
4) “The arguments against the Democrats’ healthcare plan must center around ‘politicians,’ ‘bureaucrats,’ and ‘Washington.’ … not the free market, tax incentives, or competition”;
5) “The healthcare denial horror stories from Canada & Co. do resonate, but you have to humanize them.” Luntz recommends using the term “government takeover” rather than “government run” or “government controlled.” The script: “In countries with government run healthcare, politicians make YOUR healthcare decisions. THEY decide if you’ll get the procedure you need, or if you are disqualified because the treatment is too expensive or because you are too old. We can’t have that in America.”;
6) “Healthcare quality = ‘getting the treatment you need, when you need it.” The script: “The plan put forward by the Democrats will deny people the treatments they need and make them wait to get the treatments they are allowed to receive.”;
7) “One-six-does-NOT-fit-all.” The script: Call for “the protection of the personalized doctor-patient relationship.”;
8) “WASTE, FRAUD, and ABUSE are your best targets for how to bring down costs”;
9) “Americans will expect the government to look out for those who truly can’t afford healthcare.” The script: “A balanced, common-sense approach that provides assistance to those who truly need it and keeps healthcare patient-centered rather than government-centered for everyone.”;
10) “It’s not enough to just say what you’re against. You have to tell them what you’re for.” The script: When describing what you’re proposing, use the word “more” as often as possible – There will be “more access to more treatments and more doctors … will less interference from insurance companies and Washington politicians and special interests.”
“The document,” Luntz pointed out, was “based on polling results and Instant Response dial sessions conducted in April 2009.” And he noted that because “more than one quarter of the population will back significant government involvement in healthcare and a third support ‘universal’ care,” the primary target is the “persuadables and generate support among wayward Republicans and conservatives.”
The unexpected rise of the Tea Party movement and the Town Hall anti-healthcare reform shout-downs, the difficulty that Democratic Party leadership has had in corralling un-persuaded Democratic legislators, the Administration’s inability to turn healthcare reform into the “cause of this generation,” and the Luntz memo -- which provided the salient and oft-repeated talking points for the opposition, have led to healthcare reform’s “who-knows-what’s-going-to-happen” current status.
Does Luntz really believe that he’s “all that.” One can only say “you betcha! After checking out the promotional video titled “This is Frank Luntz” at his The Word Doctors website where “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
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Even the president took a little time out from exchanging thoughts with congressional Republicans to recognize Luntz in the audience: "I see Frank Luntz up here sitting in the front,” he said. “He's already polled it, and he said... I've done a focus group and the way we're going to really box in Obama on this one or make Pelosi look bad on that one."
"But that's how we operate. It's all tactics, and it's not solving problems.”
Luntz’s world of word-craft has never been about “solving problems.” It’s always been about winning, and over the years, he’s done pretty well in that regard.