Just Sayin'

Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.

Political Wordsmithing

Political, U.S., Wisconsin

Political ideas are sold to the public in many of the same ways as hamburgers and soap. One of the most successful practitioners of this art is Republican pollster, Frank Luntz. Using focus groups, Luntz is expert at framing conservative positions by selecting the right words to evoke a desired opinion.

Graduating from Penn with a BA in History and Political Science, Luntz received his PhD in Politics from Oxford. He runs a communication consultancy, Luntz Global, and has written three books on effective communication. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News and was hired by CBS as an election analyst. 

Dr. Luntz seems to be everywhere at once. Wherever new Republican policies are being developed, there he is to tell politicians how best to frame their arguments. Here are just some of the ways that Luntz has influenced right-wing talking points and rhetoric over the past 20 years:

He was instrumental in developing the language of the 1994 “Contract With America”, helping propel Newt Gingrich into power as Speaker of the House.

In 2003, the Bush administration was rolling back important environmental regulations. Luntz issued a report on how to frame that debate to make Bush's actions seem more benign. Included was one of Luntz's most enduring acts of wordsmithing, stating that Republicans should start using the term “climate change”, because that is less frightening than “global warming”. He encouraged the administration to sow doubt in the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming by emphasizing the “lack of scientific certainty” in this debate.

On the 2009 Inauguration Day for our new President Barack Obama, a cabal of Luntz and 13 other highly placed Republican leaders met for hours. The group pledged to block and sabotage anything proposed by Obama and the Democrats. Their strategy was to not give the President any legislative accomplishments, no matter how much they could help our country. They actually wanted the US economy to falter so that Obama would not be reelected.

During the 2009 development of the Affordable Care Act, Luntz wrote a summary on how Republicans should frame their arguments. He encouraged bill opponents to say that “government should not stand between a patient and their physician”. (I guess that insurance companies should stand there instead). The often-repeated Luntz term “government takeover of health care” was later deemed the 2010 Lie of the Year by Politifact.

In April 2010, Luntz issued a memo on how to attempt a derail of financial regulatory reform, complete with talking points. He wanted Republicans to frame the bill as full of bank bailouts, lobbyist loopholes, and additional layers of bureaucracy. He suggested using emotional words, such as “government incompetence”, “red tape”,”bureaucrats”, and “unlimited regulatory powers”. 

Luntz was right in the middle of the turmoil surrounding Walker's assault on public unions. The two met in Walker's office on Feb 23, 2011. Luntz also did Milwaukee focus groups during the recall. The way that Walker later kept repeating the same emotional Luntzian phrases, such as “taxpayers”, “tools”, “big union bosses”, and “out-of-state protesters”, it sounds like Luntz gave Walker some special advice on how to frame his divide and conquer of Wisconsin.

In 2011, Luntz composed a memo on how Republicans should talk about the Occupy Wall Street movement. He told them to say “I get it” and act empathetic. He said that the term “capitalism” doesn't poll well, so they should use “free-market economy” instead. He said that conservatives should say “job creator” and “small business owner” instead of “entrepreneur”. Certainly the pols in Congress have taken this last suggestion to heart.

Self-described Word Doctor Luntz is an expert at crafting language to make Republican positions seem less extreme and at putting Democratic positions in the worst possible light. In addition to the terms mentioned above, here is a list of some of my favorite Luntzisms:

 Words for Painting ideas more positively:

Say:                                                                      Don't say:

exploring for energy                                            drilling for oil

tax simplification                                                                tax reform

personalize social security                                  privatize social security

patient centered health care                                we will do nothing

shared sacrifices                                                middle class pays for tax cuts to the rich

parental choice                                                  school choice

hard working taxpayers                                       middle class

balanced, common sense approach                     we will do nothing

pay for performance                                            bonus


Words for Painting ideas more negatively

Say:                                                                    Don't say:

Washington                                                      government

government takes from the rich                           government taxes the rich

illegal aliens                                                      undocumented workers

government option (health care)                          public option

death tax                                                          estate tax


Luntz certainly has his detractors. Bill Mahr said that Luntz “changes words in order to get stupid people to vote against their interests.” Many consider his craft Orwellian Newspeak. I am not so harsh. Luntz is only the most visible of many marketeers involved in shaping our political discourse. However, it is important for an informed electorate to realize how the political debate is being orchestrated and marketed. It is important for people to get past the rhetorical smokescreen spewed by wordsmiths like Frank Luntz and to understand the underlying issues. What is being said is much more important than how it is said.

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