I mentioned Frank Luntz in my article “Shared Values” , in which I willingly gave him credit for the clever term itself – I mean what could be more effective in garnering American support for rogue nation Israel than hearing about how similar it is to the United States? While my article made clear that these “shared values” are fallacious, I do, however begrudgingly, give Luntz all the credit. His talking points for defense of Israeli aggression and human rights abuses have indeed been effective, as noted by Patrick Cockburn writing in British newspaper The Independent. He was masterful in his Israel Project handbook, for example after the Gaza slaughter of 2014, advising Israel supporters to always appear empathetic, “no Palestinian mother should have to bury her child” (even though that child was killed by Israel) and describing Palestinian negotiating points as “demands” because Americans dislike people who make “demands.”
Dr Luntz has always claimed, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”. And he has masterfully put that knowledge to work on behalf of Republican conservative causes for decades. He was responsible for all the clever Republican soundbites during the election of 1994 wrapped in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, the title of which was also Luntz’s idea. Here we find all kinds of examples of his ingenuity, from the use of such terms as “tax relief”, “job creation”, “personal responsibility” and “taking back our streets”, to the undeniably worthy goal of imposing term limits on “career politicians” so that they could be replaced by “citizen legislators”. In addition he advised Republicans to “talk like Newt” by describing Democrats in pejorative terms like “corrupt,” “devour,” “greed,” “hypocrisy,” “liberal,” “sick,” and “traitors.”
Luntz’s work for the Republican Party in the area of taxes has been particularly effective. It was he who suggested always using “death tax” instead of the perfectly reasonable and accurate terms “estate tax” or “inheritance tax”. In a memo to Republicans, he even recommended staging press conferences about opposing or reducing this tax “at your local mortuary” to dramatize the Issue, stating that “I believe this backdrop will clearly resonate with your constituents….death is something the American people understand”.
Dr Luntz’s term for reducing taxes, “tax relief” is brilliantly conceived, cloaking our very necessary contributions to common safety, order and the public good as nasty unfair burdens. Employing the phrase “tax relief” suggests that taxes are an affliction that Americans need to be rescued from and ensures that those proposing the taxes are portrayed as villains, while those fighting against them become heroes. Use of this term was employed by George W. Bush promoting his tax cuts, primarily benefitting the wealthy but advertised as something quite different, nicely illustrated in this incredibly deceptive photo-op. Right there in front of all these cute, struggling American families is Frank Luntz’s term and sitting down to sign the bill providing that “relief” is our hero, George W. Bush.
Republican talking points about health care are also representative of the influence of Luntz. A favorite term used by Republicans to describe “Medicare for All” or any other government program covering all Americans is “government takeover”. Dr Luntz earned the 2010 Lie of the Year award from Politifact for his promotion of this phrase starting in the spring of 2009. “Takeovers are like coups,” Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. “They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.” Right, and added to this are always the buzzwords “choice”, where health care is concerned, and “competition”, as if anyone seriously ill or facing a medical emergency has the time and the information to properly “choose” the right doctor or hospital, or examine some kind of list and find the most cost effective providers. While I’m not sure of its origin, it certainly could be Luntz, another favorite term employed by those fighting single payer programs is “rationed care”, totally fallacious but quite effective, like the others mentioned above.
Luntz enjoys putting together his “lose” and “use” lists of words according to the topic at issue. For example, about climate change and green technology, which he opposed, he suggests the following:
- USE: Cleaner, safer, healthier. LOSE: Sustainable/sustainability.
- USE: Solving climate change. LOSE: Ending global warming.
- USE: Principles and priorities. LOSE: Values.
- USE: Reliable technology/energy. LOSE: Ground-breaking/State of the art.
- USE: New careers. LOSE: New jobs.
- USE: Peace of mind. LOSE: Security.
- USE: Consequences. LOSE: Threats/Problems.
- USE: Working together. LOSE: One world.
Anyone can see how cleverly selected or rejected these words are. For example “peace of mind” instead of “security”. He’s right – the first suggests a threat of some kind and therefore has negative connotations, the second does not.
And here was his “lose and use” list for Republican before the 2006 midterm election:
Other “use and lose” pairings that he has suggested more recently are rather than “undocumented worker”, use” illegal alien”, a much more negative and threatening term. And when discussing school vouchers, putting public money into corporate pockets, never use “school choice” – always say “parental choice”. And Luntz urged Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to move away from the dry phrase “funding the border wall” to the more evocative term “border security” — a language tweak the White House has obviously adopted.
As a very successful pollster, Dr Luntz has tested all kinds of political slogans and catchphrases. One of his most successful was used by now Senator Rick Scott in his last run for Florida governor and was likely responsible for his narrow victory – “let’s get to work”. In an oft-used commercial Scott was depicted heading down an alleyway while putting on his jacket, appearing like he was looking for a fight, with the words appearing – “Let’s get to work, let’s get it done”. Certainly much more effective than defining problems and suggesting solutions or plans. And clearly it worked. And presently billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloom has adopted Luntz’s phrase for his multi million dollar TV ad blitz – “Mike will get it done”.
I would like to add a few more examples of clever use of language in politics. Certainly the Democratic members of Congress took a page from Frank Luntz’s book with their extremely effective use of the term “kids in cages” to help describe the dreadful situation on our southern border. And although it cannot be attributed directly to Luntz, the Bush/Cheney administration’s deceptive use of the term “enhanced interrogation” to describe what was clearly and plainly torture, in dealing with captive suspected terrorists during the Iraq War. And just the other day I read a description of how corporations get away with paying little or no taxes on their billions in profits – it’s their use of ‘lawyers, lobbyists and loopholes”, a very definitive and resonant phrase to be sure.
Also I should add a few examples of political language employed today to cast doubt on much needed debate and embrace of tenets of dominant candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. In a brilliant article for Truthdig, R.J. Eskow dissects and defines some favorite phrases being bandied about by most of our “moderate” (read “corporate”) Democratic candidates. Several of the more striking are “free stuff” which Eskow defines as “A term of contemptuous dismissal for public services that are commonly available in other developed countries and which any decent society would make available to all human beings”; ‘I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on bold ideas” really means “I don’t have any bold ideas”; and “I know how to get things done”, (of course trumpeted constantly by Joe Biden) really means “I intend to use a political approach that hasn’t gotten anything done in years”.
And finally I would like to add a few oxymorons to this discussion of clever use of words. A favorite of mine that I use as a definitive example of an oxymoron is “military intelligence”. Others that are used in political discussions are “fighting for peace”, “bureaucratic efficiency” and “congressional ethics”. And George W. Bush enjoyed describing himself with the fallacious term “compassionate conservative”. Certainly, in this time of striking divisions in politics, it might be illustrative to suggest several that define our times. “Moderate Republican” and “billionaire Democrat” are certainly oxymorons today. Obviously there is no such thing as a moderate Republican presently and the very existence of billionaire Democrats like presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, are contradictions in terms as repudiations of what a Democrat is expected to embrace. And I will add my own original contribution to the lexicon of political oxymorons, one which circles back to my first paragraph and Frank Luntz’s work for the Israel Project – “Israeli justice”.
And one more thing, after his house was narrowly saved by valiant Los Angeles firefighters from being burned in the Skirball fire, Frank Luntz has seen the light (and felt the heat) and has joined the ranks of climate change believers, offering passionate and personal testimony recently to Congress on the urgency of dealing with its effects. Also, observing that “It’s hard to be partisan when you see the damage being done”, he has abandoned his long standing association with the Republican Party. Who knows, he may decide to share his devious and devastating talent with all political parties.