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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Luntz: GOP Tanks Off Message

How to Speak Republican,” Katharine Mieszkowski’s Salon interview with Frank Luntz, offers a revealing look at how the GOP’s top wordsmith sees their midterm debacle. Asked what he thought were the GOP’s “linguistic mistakes” in the ’06 campaign, Luntz says:

Earmarks became a public issue and they were silent on it. The bridge to nowhere was a complete disaster for the GOP. Not articulating the sense of accountability with Mark Foley and Duke Cunningham and [Bob] Ney. I think that the language that was tied to the policies of 1994 represented politics at its best, and language tied to the politics of 2006 represented politics at its worst.

Asked for some examples of failed language, Luntz responds:

You tell me. What was the Republican message for 2006? I’ve asked congressmen, senators. I even asked the people responsible for creating the message for 2006. What was the message for the Republican Party in 2006? Not a single person can give me an answer. None of them. No one at the Republican National Committee, no Republican senator, no Republican House member, no operative, none of the Democrats, can answer it either. Nobody knows. That’s the failure. So when you say to me, “Give me an example,” I can’t. There’s no message to criticize because there was no message. It was nothing.

Luntz credits Gingrich for giving the Dems their winning slogan “Had enough?” but says they won more because they got a free ride, thanks to GOP ineptitude. He takes predictable pot shots at the netroots, but sees Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as generally effective communicators. A stickler for oppo research, Luntz says he reads all of George Lakoff’s books and spends “half my time” reading Democratic blogs and studying congress in action on the floor. Luntz also has a new book “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” which probably merits a read by political language junkies of both parties.
Yet, after giving Luntz credit for identifying some key GOP failures in the midterms, absent here is any sense that maybe voters rightly concluded that the occupation of Iraq was a bad idea, based on lies and poorly executed. It’s all about communication. Instead of “surge,” Luntz believes President Bush would have done better using the euphemisms “reassessment” or “realignment.” Thoughtful political communication is important. But at a certain point, using evasive language to describe bad policy is putting lipstick on a pig.