September 23, 2009
I have tried to hate Frank Luntz, but I can’t.
Luntz is the Republican-aligned pollster and wordsmith who devised the Contract with America that thrust Newt Gingrich into power. He renamed the estate tax the “death tax” and sealed its doom in public opinion.
More recently, a 28-page memo Luntz wrote circulated among Republicans pinpointing the words that would help sink President Barack Obama’s chances of reforming health care.
Luntz urged Republicans to embrace the idea of reform, but denounce specific Democratic ideas as based upon a “committee of Washington bureaucrats.” All these things should make it easy for me, someone who likes to see government work toward serving the public more fairly and more efficiently, to hate Luntz.
But I can’t. For one thing, Luntz is an expert at what I admire: the effective use of words. His last book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” (Hyperion, 2006), gives many examples of how even the best politicians with the best of intentions can fail to win public support if they don’t thoughtfully choose their words. Independents may hate the idea of “drilling for oil,” but who would oppose “exploring for energy?” You get the idea.
I can’t hate Luntz, also, because I saw him work his magic up-close several years ago, when out of a Westwood office he ran focus groups aimed at finding the best way to convey Israel’s message to Middle America. As an adviser to The Israel Project, the 47-year-old communications expert has created the lexicon that helps Israel battle for public opinion.
“The language of Israel is the language of America: ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘security’ and ‘peace,’” he wrote. Luntz has tried, with varying success, to train Israeli politicians in effective English — a thankless task if ever there were one.
Luntz’s newest book, “What Americans Really Want ... Really” (Hyperion), explores the attitudes that pre-determine which phrases will resonate on which issues.
“I’m one of the few people who has actually interviewed Americans in all 50 states,” Luntz told me in a phone conversation last week. “What bothers me is that there’s a recognition out there that the economy is going to continue to get tough, the culture is going to continue to coarsen, people will be less civil. We used to be so optimistic, and now we’ve become so pessimistic and so cynical. And you see that being articulated in the town hall meetings.”
I asked if it was the health care debate that teed everyone off.
“Obama was the first president since Reagan, maybe JFK, to realign the country,” Luntz said. “And he missed the opportunity. And it has nothing to do with race. He ran as a centrist, he ran as a moderate, and he has governed as a traditional liberal. That’s great for one-third of America, that’s awful for one-third of America, and the remaining third feels no one’s listening to them. The so-called Independents are as mad as the Republicans, because for them it’s not about ideology, it’s about good government, and they don’t see it.”
In our conversation, Luntz pushed his findings toward an anti-Obama bias, but the book itself paints an even more complex picture of our screwy fellow countrymen. Americans hate big insurance company profits far more than big government. They despise “coarsening of the culture” but devour porn. They revere authenticity and despise duplicity, but 44 percent of us would lie about an error in our favor on our tax return.
When I asked Luntz if his research doesn’t just prove that Americans are hopelessly hypocritical, our wants and desires constantly at odds with our needs and ideals, he launched into a multi-passage quote from the ’60s protest song, “Eve of Destruction”: “Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”
“It’s part of our culture to have competing beliefs,” he said, “and to have those beliefs conflict with actual behavior.”
Although Luntz didn’t come right out and say it, it’s clear to me that what Obama has failed to do is communicate to the Independents who helped elect him in a way that inspires trust. It’s not surprising that a Sept. 1 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey showed 53 percent of Independents disapprove of how Obama’s handling his duties in the White House — the first time since last November that Obama has lost their support.
So what I do hate is that Luntz’s opponents vilify him to their own detriment. I once asked him if he’d work for Democrats. “I’d love to,” he said. “They won’t hire me.” Instead, the chat rooms buzz with the screeds of self-righteous Luntz-bashers who somehow think it’s devious to tailor words to achieve a desired result. But Luntz, after all, is not about communicating clearly, he’s paid to communicate effectively.
I can’t hate Frank Luntz because, well, he is so damn clever. Those who want an effective and comprehensive health care system will lose the national debate on reform if they think they know what Americans really want, but they don’t know how to really, really explain it.