the second opinion

The Frank Luntz script for Congressional Republicans

A guide to phrases journos should look for (and scrutinize)
January 16, 2013

In advance of a House Republican retreat this week, wordsmith Frank Luntz again offered his recipe for GOP political success, this time in a Washington Post Outlook piece on Friday. For the last two decades, politicians have taken Luntz’s advice for using the “right” words to frame the conversation—how to best talk about a whole bunch of hot button subjects from reforming the FDA and Medicare back then to gun control and Medicare now.

Luntzisms become the the pols’ very best sound-bite vocabulary, which the press picks up and passes along—in effect, sending out his client’s message to the public. That’s why it’s important for jounos to pay attention to Luntz’s latest advice as another day of fiscal reckoning draws closer, and political speak will undoubtedly reflect the Luntz prescription.

“Bad language is costly,” Luntz wrote. Whatever the GOP’s message has been, said Luntz, it must change. He talked about the Republican’s image problem, advising House and Senate Republicans to “stop bickering and start talking differently.” The party needs “a new language to communicate their ideas effectively,” he said. For starters, it must abandon “ugly phrases,” such as describing budget negotiations as “a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” or using the non-urgent-sounding phrase, “kick the can down the road” or “committing fiscal child abuse” (per Luntz, “insulting”) when discussing fixing or not fixing the debt. Luntz recommended a “more powerful metaphor” like “piling debt on our children” or “mortgaging the American dream.”

He also had advice for talking about food stamps—not exactly the country’s most popular social program. Instead of talking about how the US is becoming a “food stamp nation,” he suggested more talk about personal responsibility. The phrase “food stamp nation” makes voters think Republicans are callous, advised Luntz. He suggested a “positive message about how hard work, personal responsibility and earned success are better than government dependency.”

In his Post language manifesto, Luntz returned to Medicare (along with Social Security). Instead of talking about entitlement reform or controlling growth, he counseled the GOP to talk “about how to save and strengthen these programs so they are there when voters need them. After all, they’ve paid for them.” His advice is not new. In 1995, also a time when Congress was eyeing Medicare cuts and the Heritage Foundation debuted its voucher plan, the United Seniors Association, a conservative answer to the AARP, hired Luntz to conduct some focus groups. What Luntz learned helped him fashion the right language for talking about Medicare, instructing GOP pols that their number-one priority “is to save Medicare,” they should repeat the words “saving, preserving, and strengthening Medicare.” They should not talk about “improving” Medicare, however, because to seniors that meant more benefits.

To this day the idea of improving Medicare, which many advocates who counsel the elderly believe is necessary, is pretty much a verboten subject in public. And Democrats as well as Republicans talk about saving and strengthening Medicare. In his chat with Barbara Walters before Christmas, the president said “we need to strengthen Social Security, we need to strengthen Medicare for future generations.”

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Luntz told the Beltway cognoscenti who undoubtedly read his work that when they hear phrases like a “balanced, responsible approach,” “you know that a pollster crafted them because they resonate with Americans who are angry.” Nearly every White House speech during the fiscal cliff debate used that phrase, Luntz said, urging Republicans to find their own phrases that resonate.

So when journos hear the words “strengthen and save” Medicare or “personal responsibility and earned success,” they, too, should know that a pollster crafted them, and they should work to pin down the pols on exactly what those finely-honed words mean. What will saving and strengthening mean to seniors who have to assume more out-of-pocket costs for care when they are on a fixed income experiencing their own fiscal crunch? How will personal responsibility help an infirm elderly woman who runs out of her $68 food stamp allotment mid-month? Luntz may be right—bad language is costly. It will be costly for the public if it fails to fully understand what changes will mean for their financial and physical wellbeing.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.