Take, for example, the debt ceiling fight unfolding right now. In the world according to Luntz, the debt ceiling battle has been lost already by Republicans because they keep referring to it as a hostage (they don't). Luntz writes:
But they need a new language to communicate their ideas effectively; it starts with abandoning ugly phrases such as “a hostage you might take a chance at shooting” to describe budget negotiations. And Republicans need to stop expressing a willingness to shut down the government if they don’t get their way on the debt ceiling. Americans don’t want a government shutdown — for any reason.
What language does he suggest? When it comes to the debt ceiling, he doesn't suggest anything, which suggests he may be telling Republicans to quit playing that tired game and just pass the clean increase just as previous Congresses have done since there was a debt ceiling to raise.
On other issues, here are his suggestions.
- Instead of smaller government, they should talk about more efficient and effective government. The former is ideological language of the 1980s; the latter is practical language of today.
- Instead of tax reform, talk about making the IRS code simpler, flatter and fairer. Speak to what people really hate about the code: its complexity.
- In addition to cutting spending, they must talk about controlling — not capping — it. What angers Americans more than how much politicians spend today is how much more they know Washington will waste tomorrow. A “cap” can be lifted, but “controls” are constant.
- Instead of entitlement reform or controlling the growth of Medicare and Social Security, talk about how to save and strengthen these programs so they are there when voters need them. After all, they paid for them.
- Better than discussing economic opportunity and growth, Republicans should talk about creating a healthier and more secure economy. Everyone benefits when economic health is restored. And while economic opportunity would be nice, security is a necessity.
In other words, Frank Luntz is instructing Republicans to start agreeing with President Obama, who has used every single one of these phrases in recent speeches. When you read that list, surely you heard the president's campaign speeches about protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, or making the tax code simpler and fairer?
Like Peggy Noonan, Luntz is telling Republicans to start acting like Democrats and deal with the very real issues at hand. Like Democrats. I'm not sure Republicans actually get that yet.
If I had a chance to speak to Frank Luntz face to face about this article, I'd tell him it's not merely language, and it's cynical to say it is. Pretty language has to be backed up with some solid policy ideas. Paul Ryan says he wants to strengthen Medicare all the time and preserve it for future generations. Then Paul Ryan puts forward his proposal, which kills Medicare and hands its future off to private insurers, which gives them far more power than they deserve to have while taking it away from the sick, disabled and elderly.
It isn't mere language that is a problem here. I can call that brown thing over there on the grass canine excrement but if anyone goes over and examines it, it's still dog sh*t and if you step in it and get it on your shoes your shoes will stink and no one will let you come inside before you take your shoes off and leave them far away from the back door. Luntz can call Paul Ryan's Medicare-killing proposal "strengthening Medicare", but it still carries the stench of a dog turd attached to his shoe.
When Luntz says Americans are angry about spending, he forgets what spending they're angry about. They're not angry about spending on Americans; they're angry about spending on bank bailouts and wars that no one wanted in the first place. They're not angry about spending on the elderly; they're angry about giving rich people such a huge and loophole-ridden tax code that they pay less than 15 percent while the rest of us pay whatever we owe, which on average is higher than their 14 percent.
If Republicans head out from their retreat with the intention of papering over what they do and have been doing with less incendiary language, they will still be the same monumental failures they've been for the last four years, because people are not that stupid. They know the smell of dog crap on someone's shoes when they smell it.
Nevertheless, there is one suggestion Luntz makes that Republicans should heed.
Beyond fiscal policy, Republicans need to revamp their messaging on other issues. For example, the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., offered Republicans a chance to discuss public safety — a more personal issue than “crime” — on a human level. That hasn’t happened, but it still can. Most people agree that there is a middle ground between gun-control hard-liners, who see every crime as an excuse to enact new laws, and the National Rifle Association, which sees every crime as an excuse to sell more guns. The Second Amendment deserves defending, but do Republicans truly believe that anyone should be able to buy any gun, anywhere, at any time? If yes, they’re on the side of less than 10 percent of America. If not, they need to say so.
Yes, they need to say so and they need to put some action items behind that say-so. No more kowtowing to the lunatic fringe who thinks a war should break out over reasonable gun safety laws. It is high time for Republicans to stop allowing the blood of their fellow Americans to wash over them every time some nut with an assault weapon decides to make some kind of a statement and step up.
On that score, they should listen, and so should any Democrat who still thinks the NRA has any hold over them.