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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Does ‘Re-Framing’ Give Dems Political Leverage?

The debate over the importance of “framing” gets re-energized in Matt Bai’s “The Framing Wars” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Bai argues, among other points, that the Democrats used creative framing to stop the GOP ‘nuclear option’ and he tells an interesting story:

In January, Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story — a frame — for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds — that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights — was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were ”changing rules in the middle of the game” and dismantling the ”checks and balances” that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.
Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party ”arrogant.” They said they feared ”abuse of power.” This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style ”war room” on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party’s top ad makers. She used Garin’s research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: ”Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.” They concluded, ”Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.”

Bai notes that not everyone considers the filibuster compromise much of a victory for Democrats. But he makes a persuasive argument that a conscious strategy of re-framing the debate did give the Dems some leverage.
Bai provides a broad summary of the theories and still-rising popularity of framing guru George Lakoff, who now has a new DVD “How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff.” Bai also runs the 2004 Presidential race through a Lakoffian filter:

From Day 1, Republicans tagged Kerry with a larger metaphor: he was a flip-flopper, a Ted Kennedy-style liberal who tried to seem centrist, forever bouncing erratically from one position to the other. They made sure that virtually every comment they uttered about Kerry during the campaign reminded voters, subtly or not, of this one central theme. (The smartest ad of the campaign may have been the one that showed Kerry windsurfing, expertly gliding back and forth, back and forth.) Democrats, on the other hand, presented a litany of different complaints about Bush, depending on the day and the backdrop; he was a liar, a corporate stooge, a spoiled rich kid, a reckless warmonger. But they never managed to tie them all into a single, unifying image that voters could associate with the president. As a result, none of them stuck. Bush was attacked. Kerry was framed.

To show that Dems have been equally ineffectual in projecting their agenda, Bai quotes Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and a strong proponent of framing:

I can describe, and I’ve always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values…We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn’t compete very well. I’m not talking about the policies. I’m talking about the language.

Bai’s article includes blistering quotes from Lakoff’s critics, but concedes that Lakoff’s theories have been oversimplified by many of them — “the cartoon version of Lakoff,” according to Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Meanwhile, Katha Pollitt’s article “If the Frame Fits…” in July 11 edition of The Nation, offers a different take on Lakoff missed by Bai and other Lakoff critics:

I keep thinking that reframing misses the point, which is to speak clearly from a moral center–precisely not to mince words and change the subject and turn the tables. I keep thinking that people are so disgusted by politics that the field is open for progressives who use plain language and stick to their guns and convey that they are real people, at home in their skin, and not a collection of blow-dried focus-grouped holograms.

Bai concludes his article more on the side of Lakoff’s critics than not and he gives the Republicans too much credit for substance in their message. Still, his article has some usefull insights on ‘frames’ and the importance of a clear and unified message for Dems.