Politics today have become PR campaigns where both sides of the spectrum attempt to move the center to their side. The Right has been successful in the past decade in being able to "frame" their positions to make them appealing to the center. Matt Bai recaps the The Framining Wars. Then we move to various examples from the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Once everything is said and done, it takes years for "frames" to take hold and have the numbers necessary to execute. Then again when South Dakota passed a outright ban on abortions, both sides of the abortion battle, struggled with the proper "frame". Bernie Horn offers help for progressives in their struggle to get their frame understood.
This article examines the "frames" used for education.
The Framing Wars
By Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005Defense of the Filibuster
Father of Framing - George Lakoff
Lakoff Meets with Democrats
Social Security - The First Test
What Democrats Learned
Is "Framing" Working?
Democrats New Brand Image
Supreme Court Nomination - Tracking the Framing Wars
Wikipedia: Framing - A Communication Theory
After last November's defeat, Democrats were like aviation investigators sifting through twisted metal in a cornfield, struggling to posit theories about the disaster all around them. Some put the onus on John Kerry, saying he had never found an easily discernable message. Others, including Kerry himself, wrote off the defeat to the unshakable realities of wartime, when voters were supposedly less inclined to jettison a sitting president. Liberal activists blamed mushy centrists. Mushy centrists blamed Michael Moore. As the weeks passed, however, at Washington dinner parties and in public post-mortems, one explanation took hold not just among Washington insiders but among far-flung contributors, activists and bloggers too: the problem wasn't the substance of the party's agenda or its messenger as much as it was the Democrats' inability to communicate coherently. They had allowed Republicans to control the language of the debate, and that had been their undoing.
Even in their weakened state, Democrats resolved not to let it happen again. And improbably, given their post-election gloom, they managed twice in the months that followed to make good on that pledge. The first instance was the skirmish over the plan that the president called Social Security reform and that everybody else, by spring, was calling a legislative disaster. The second test for Democrats was their defense of the filibuster (the time-honored stalling tactic that prevents the majority in the Senate from ending debate), which seemed at the start a hopeless cause but ended in an unlikely stalemate. These victories weren't easy to account for, coming as they did at a time when Republicans seem to own just about everything in Washington but the first-place Nationals. (And they're working on that.) During the first four years of the Bush administration, after all, Democrats had railed just as loudly against giveaways to the wealthy and energy lobbyists, and all they had gotten for their trouble were more tax cuts and more drilling. Something had changed in Washington -- but what?
Democrats thought they knew the answer. Even before the election, a new political word had begun to take hold of the party, beginning on the West Coast and spreading like a virus all the way to the inner offices of the Capitol. That word was ''framing.'' Exactly what it means to ''frame'' issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative.
Republicans, of course, were the ones who had always excelled at framing controversial issues, having invented and popularized loaded phrases like ''tax relief'' and ''partial-birth abortion'' and having achieved a kind of Pravda-esque discipline for disseminating them. But now Democrats said that they had learned to fight back. ''The Democrats have finally reached a level of outrage with what Republicans were doing to them with language,'' Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic pollster, told me in May.
Defense of the Filibuster
By the time Washington's attention turns to the Supreme Court later this month, rejuvenated Democrats actually believed they have developed the rhetorical skill, if it came to that, to thwart the president's plans for the court. That a party so thoroughly relegated to minority status might dictate the composition of the Supreme Court would seem to mock the hard realities of history and mathematics, but that is how much faith the Democrats now held in the power of a compelling story. ''In a way, it feels like all the systemic improvements we've made in communications strategy over the past few months have been leading to this,'' Jim Jordan, one of the party's top strategists, said a few days after Sandra Day O'Connor announced her resignation. ''This will be an extraordinarily sophisticated, well-orchestrated, intense fight. And our having had some run-throughs over the past few months will be extremely important.''
The most critical run-through for Democrats, in light of the test ahead, was the defense of the filibuster, and for that reason, it offers some useful clues to how Democrats may try to frame the Supreme Court fight as well. The battle began late last fall, when Senate Republicans, feeling pretty good about themselves, started making noises about ramming judges through the Senate by stripping Democrats of their ability to filibuster, a plan the Republican senators initially called ''the nuclear option.'' The fight was nominally over Bush's choices for the federal bench, but everyone knew it was in fact merely a prelude to the battle over the Supreme Court; the only way for Democrats to stop a confirmation vote would be to employ the filibuster.
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.''
Cutter's war room began churning out mountains of news releases hammering daily at the G.O.P.'s ''abuse of power.'' In an unusual show of discipline, Democrats in the Senate and House carried laminated, pocket-size message cards -- ''DEMOCRATS FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY, AGAINST ABUSE OF POWER,'' blared the headline at the top -- with the talking points on one side and some helpful factoids about Bush's nominees on the other. During an appearance on ''This Week With George Stephanopoulos'' in April, Senator Charles Schumer of New York needed all of 30 seconds to invoke the ''abuse of power'' theme -- twice.
By the time Reid took to the airwaves in late May, on the eve of what looked to be a final showdown on the filibuster (''This abuse of power is not what our founders intended,'' he told the camera solemnly), the issue seemed pretty well defined in the public mind. In a typical poll conducted by Time magazine, 59 percent of voters said they thought the G.O.P. should be stopped from eliminating the filibuster. Perhaps feeling the pressure, a group of seven Republicans joined with seven Democrats in a last-minute compromise. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, and his team, smarting from crucial defections, had no choice but to back down from a vote. The truce meant that several of Bush's judges would be confirmed quickly, but it marked a rare retreat for Republicans and infuriated conservative activists, who knew that a Supreme Court battle would now be messier than they had hoped.
For their part, Democrats were euphoric at having played the G.O.P. to a draw. The facts of the filibuster fight hadn't necessarily favored them; in reality, the constitutional principle of ''checks and balances'' on which the Democrats' case was based refers to the three branches of government, not to some parliamentary procedure, and it was actually the Democrats who had broken with Senate tradition by using the filibuster to block an entire slate of judges. (''An irrelevancy beyond the pay grade of the American voter,'' Garin retorted when I pointed this out.) And yet it was their theory of the case, and not the Republicans', that had won the argument. As Garin explained it, Republicans had become ensnared in a faulty frame of their own making. The phrase ''nuclear option'' -- a term Frist and his colleagues had tried gamely, but unsuccessfully, to lose -- had made Dr. Frist sound more like Dr. Strangelove. ''It's a very evocative phrase,'' Garin said. ''It's blowing up the Senate. It's having your finger on the button.''
Garin was gloating, but it was hard to blame him. On the eve of what promises to be a historic debate over the direction of the nation's highest court, Democrats on Capitol Hill seemed to have starkly reversed the dynamic of last fall's election. Then, they had watched helplessly as George W. Bush and his strategists methodically twisted John Kerry into a hopeless tangle of contradictions and equivocations, using words and imagery to bend him into a shape that hardly resembled the war hero he had been. Now, Democrats believed, they had deciphered the hieroglyphics of modern political debate that had so eluded them in the campaign, and in doing so they had exacted some small measure of revenge. As one of the party's senior Senate aides told me a few days after the filibuster compromise was reached, ''We framed them the way they framed Kerry.''
Father of Framing - George Lakoff
The father of framing is a man named George Lakoff, and his spectacular ascent over the last eight months in many ways tells the story of where Democrats have been since the election. A year ago, Lakoff was an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley, renowned as one of the great, if controversial, minds in cognitive science but largely unknown outside of it. When he, like many liberals, became exasperated over the drift of the Kerry campaign last summer -- ''I went to bed angry every night,'' he told me -- Lakoff decided to bang out a short book about politics and language, based on theories he had already published with academic presses, that could serve as a kind of handbook for Democratic activists. His agent couldn't find a publishing house that wanted it. Lakoff ended up more or less giving it away to Chelsea Green, a tiny liberal publisher in Vermont.
That book, Don't Think of an Elephant! is now in its eighth printing, having sold nearly 200,000 copies, first through liberal word of mouth and the blogosphere and then through reviews and the lecture circuit. (On the eve of last fall's election, I came across a Democratic volunteer in Ohio who was handing out a boxful of copies to her friends.) Lakoff has emerged as one of the country's most coveted speakers among liberal groups, up there with Howard Dean, who, as it happens, wrote the foreword to ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' Lakoff has a DVD titled ''How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff,'' and he recently set up his own consulting company.
When I first met Lakoff in April, at a U.C.L.A. forum where he was appearing with Arianna Huffington and the populist author Thomas Frank, he told me that he had been receiving an average of eight speaking invitations a day and that his e-mail account and his voice mailbox had been full for months. ''I have a lot of trouble with this life,'' Lakoff confided wearily as we boarded a rental-car shuttle in Oakland the following morning. He is a short and portly man with a professorial beard, and his rumpled suits are a size too big. ''People say, 'Why do you go speak to all these little groups?' It's because I love them. I wish I could do them all.'' Not that most of Lakoff's engagements are small. Recently, in what has become a fairly typical week for him, Lakoff sold out auditoriums in Denver and Seattle.
How this came to be is a story about the unlikely intersection of cognitive science and political tumult. It began nearly 40 years ago, when, as a graduate student, Lakoff rebelled against his mentor, Noam Chomsky, the most celebrated linguist of the century. The technical basis of their argument, which for a time cleaved the linguistics world in two, remains well beyond the intellectual reach of anyone who actually had fun in college, but it was a personal and nasty disagreement, and it basically went like this: Chomsky said that linguists should concern themselves with discovering the universal rules of syntax, which form the basis for language. Lakoff, on the other hand, theorized that language was inherently linked to the workings of the mind -- to ''conceptual structures,'' as a linguist would put it -- and that to understand language, you first had to study the way that each individual's worldview and ideas informed his thought process.
Chomsky effectively won this debate, at least in the sense that most American linguistics departments still teach it his way. (To this day, the two men don't speak.) Undeterred, however, Lakoff and his like-minded colleagues marched off and founded the field of cognitive linguistics, which seeks to understand the nature of language -- how we use it, why it is persuasive -- by exploring the largely unconscious way in which the mind operates.
In the 1970's, Lakoff, verging into philosophy, became obsessed with metaphors. As he explained it to me one day over lunch at a Berkeley cafe, students of the mind, going back to Aristotle, had always viewed metaphor simply as a device of language, a facile way of making a point. Lakoff argued instead that metaphors were actually embedded in the recesses of the mind, giving the brain a way to process abstract ideas. In other words, a bad relationship reminds you on an unconscious level of a cul-de-sac, because both are leading nowhere. This results from what might be called a ''love as journey'' frame in the neural pathways of your brain -- that is, you are more likely to relate to the story of, say, a breakup if it is described to you with the imagery of a journey. This might seem intuitive, but in 1980, when Lakoff wrote ''Metaphors We Live By,'' it was considered fairly radical. ''For 2,500 years, nobody challenged Aristotle, even though he was wrong,'' Lakoff told me, sipping from a goblet of pinot grape juice. Humility is not his most obvious virtue.
Through his work on metaphors, Lakoff found an avenue into political discourse. In a seminal 1996 book, Moral Politics, he asserted that people relate to political ideologies, on an unconscious level, through the metaphorical frame of a family. Conservative politicians, Lakoff suggests, operate under the frame of a strict father, who lays down inflexible rules and imbues his family with a strong moral order. Liberals, on the other hand, are best understood through a frame of the nurturant parent, who teaches his child to pursue personal happiness and care for those around him. (The two models, Lakoff has said, are personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side and Oprah Winfrey on the other.) Most voters, Lakoff suggests, carry some part of both parental frames in the synapses of their brains; which model is ''activated'' -- that is, which they can better relate to -- depends on the language that politicians use and the story that they tell.
The most compelling part of Lakoff's hypothesis is the notion that in order to reach voters, all the individual issues of a political debate must be tied together by some larger frame that feels familiar to us. Lakoff suggests that voters respond to grand metaphors -- whether it is the metaphor of a strict father or something else entirely -- as opposed to specific arguments, and that specific arguments only resonate if they reinforce some grander metaphor. The best evidence to support this idea can be found in the history of the 2004 presidential campaign. 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.
According to Lakoff, Republicans are skilled at using loaded language, along with constant repetition, to play into the frames in our unconscious minds. Take one of his favorite examples, the phrase ''tax relief.'' It presumes, Lakoff points out, that we are being oppressed by taxes and that we need to be liberated from them. It fits into a familiar frame of persecution, and when such a phrase, repeated over time, enters the everyday lexicon, it biases the debate in favor of conservatives. If Democrats start to talk about their own ''tax relief'' plan, Lakoff says, they have conceded the point that taxes are somehow an unfair burden rather than making the case that they are an investment in the common good. The argument is lost before it begins.
Lakoff informed his political theories by studying the work of Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who helped Newt Gingrich formulate the Contract With America in 1994. To Lakoff and his followers, Luntz is the very embodiment of Republican deception. His private memos, many of which fell into the hands of Democrats, explain why. In one recent memo, titled ''The 14 Words Never to Use,'' Luntz urged conservatives to restrict themselves to phrases from what he calls, grandly, the ''New American Lexicon.'' Thus, a smart Republican, in Luntz's view, never advocates ''drilling for oil''; he prefers ''exploring for energy.'' He should never criticize the ''government,'' which cleans our streets and pays our firemen; he should attack ''Washington,'' with its ceaseless thirst for taxes and regulations. ''We should never use the word outsourcing,'' Luntz wrote, ''because we will then be asked to defend or end the practice of allowing companies to ship American jobs overseas.''
In Lakoff's view, not only does Luntz's language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff's vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be ''activated'' by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.
This notion of ''activating'' unconscious thought sounded like something out of ''The Manchurian Candidate'' (''Raymond, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?''), and I asked Lakoff if he was suggesting that Americans voted for conservatives because they had been brainwashed.
''Absolutely not,'' he answered, shaking his head.
But hadn't he just said that Republicans had somehow managed to rewire people's brains?
''That's true, but that's different from brainwashing, and it's a very important thing,'' he said. ''Brainwashing has to do with physical control, capturing people and giving them messages over and over under conditions of physical deprivation or torture. What conservatives have done is not brainwashing in this way. They've done something that's perfectly legal. What they've done is find ways to set their frames into words over many years and have them repeated over and over again and have everybody say it the same way and get their journalists to repeat them, until they became part of normal English.''
I asked Lakoff how he himself had avoided being reprogrammed by these stealth Republican words. ''Because I'm a linguist, I recognize them,'' he said. Even to him, this sounded a little too neat, and a moment later he admitted that he, too, had fallen prey to conservative frames now and then. ''Occasionally,'' he said with a shrug, ''I've caught myself.''
Lakoff Meets with Democrats
In May 2003, Senator Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat, read ''Moral Politics'' and took Lakoff to a Democratic Senate retreat in Cambridge, Md. Lakoff had never met a senator before. ''I knew what they were up against, even if they didn't know what they were up against,'' Lakoff says. ''They were just besieged. My heart went out to them.''
Lakoff gave a presentation, and in the parlance of comedians, he killed. Hillary Clinton invited him to dinner. Tom Daschle, then the minority leader, asked Lakoff if he would rejoin the senators a few days later, during their next caucus meeting at the Capitol, so that he could offer advice about the tax plan they were working on. Lakoff readily agreed, even though he had come East without so much as a jacket or tie. ''I went in there, and it was just this beautiful thing,'' he told me, recalling the caucus meeting. ''All these people I'd just met applauded. They gave me hugs. It was the most amazing thing.''
Of course, the idea that language and narrative matter in politics shouldn't really have come as a revelation to Washington Democrats. Bill Clinton had been an intuitive master of framing. As far back as 1992, Clinton's image of Americans who ''worked hard and played by the rules,'' for instance, had perfectly evoked the metaphor of society as a contest that relied on fairness. And yet despite this, Democrats in Congress were remarkably slow to grasp this dimension of political combat. Having ruled Capitol Hill pretty comfortably for most of the past 60 years, Democrats had never had much reason to think about calibrating their language in order to sell their ideas.
''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,'' Dorgan, who runs the Democratic Policy Committee in the Senate, told me recently. ''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.''
Dorgan has become the caucus's chief proponent of framing theory. ''I think getting some help from some people who really understand how to frame some of these issues is long overdue,'' he says, which is why he invited Lakoff back to talk to his colleagues after the 2004 election. Meanwhile, over on the House side, George Miller, a Democrat from the San Francisco area, met Lakoff through a contributor and offered to distribute copies of ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' to every member of the caucus. The thin paperback became as ubiquitous among Democrats in the Capitol as Mao's Little Red Book once was in the Forbidden City. ''The framing was perfect for us, because we were just arriving in an unscientific way at what Lakoff was arriving at in a scientific way,'' says Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House.
In fact, though Lakoff started the framing discussion, he was by no means the only outside expert whom Democrats were consulting about language. To the contrary, a small industry had blossomed. Even before the 2004 election, Pelosi had enlisted John Cullinane, a software entrepreneur in Boston, to help the caucus develop the wording for a vision statement. Cullinane spent an hour and a half with members of the caucus one afternoon, while his aide scrawled suggestions on a white board. Among his recommendations was that they come up with a list that had six parts -- either six principles or six values or six ideas. When we spoke, I asked Cullinane why it had to be six. ''Seven's too many,'' he replied. ''Five's too few.''
Then there was Richard Yanowitch, a Silicon Valley executive and party donor, who worked with Senate Democrats, providing what he calls ''private-sector type marketing.'' Last December, at Dorgan's request, Reid put Yanowitch in charge of a ''messaging project'' to help devise new language for the party. Another adviser who became a frequent guest on the Hill after the election was Jim Wallis, a left-leaning evangelical minister who wrote ''God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it.'' In January, after addressing a Senate caucus retreat at the Kennedy Center, Wallis wrote a memo to the Democratic Policy Committee titled ''Budgets Are Moral Documents,'' in which he laid out his argument that Democrats needed to ''reframe'' the budget in spiritual terms.
What all of these new advisers meant by ''framing,'' exactly, and whether their concepts bore much resemblance to Lakoff's complex cognitive theories wasn't really clear. The word had quickly become something of a catchall, a handy term to describe anything having to do with changing the party's image through some new combination of language. So admired were these outside experts that they could hardly be counted as outsiders anymore. In May, for instance, Roger Altman, Clinton's former deputy treasury secretary, held a dinner for the former president to discuss the party's message with about 15 of its most elite and influential thinkers, including James Carville, Paul Begala, the pollster Mark J. Penn and John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank. Lakoff sat at Clinton's table; Wallis, at the next one over.
Social Security - The First Test
Bush's plan to reform Social Security provided, last winter, the first test of the Democrats' new focus on language and narrative. In retrospect, it shows both the limits of framing and, perhaps, the real reason that Democrats have managed to stymie critical pieces of the Bush agenda.
Almost as soon as Bush signaled his intention to overhaul the existing program, Democrats in Congress, enamored of Lakoff's theories, embarked on a search for a compelling story line. Yanowitch's highly secretive messaging group met for months on the topic and came up with two ''sample narratives'' that Democrats might use. The first, titled ''Privatization: A Gamble You Can't Afford to Take,'' stressed the insecurity of middle-class families and compared Bush's plan to a roll of the dice. The second, ''The Magical World of Privatization,'' spun out a metaphor that centered on Bush as ''an old-fashioned traveling salesman, with a cart full of magic elixirs and cure-all tonics.'' Some of this imagery found its way into the dialogue, for better or worse; Pelosi and other House members, never too proud to put their dignity above the greater good, held an outdoor news conference standing next to a stack of giant dice.
As they would later with the filibuster fight and with the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats, under Reid's direction, set up a war room and a strategy group, this one run by Jim Messina, chief of staff for Senator Max Baucus of Montana. Eschewing all the lofty metaphors, the war room stuck to two simple ideas: Bush's plan relied on privatizing the most popular government benefit in America, and it amounted to benefit cuts coupled with long-term borrowing. In addition to keeping members focused on their talking points, Messina's team and its allies -- led by two liberal interest groups, MoveOn.org and Campaign for America's Future, with help from the all-powerful AARP -- also had to stop senators and congressmen from offering compromise plans that might drive a wedge into the caucus. In this way, Democrats had decided to follow the example of Bill Kristol, the Republican strategist who had urged his party (shrewdly, as it turned out) to refrain from proposing any alternatives to Clinton's doomed health-care plan in 1993. ''The minute we introduce a plan, we have to solve the problem'' is how one senior Democratic aide explained it to me. ''We are the minority party. It's not our job to fix things.''
As it happened, this was where Lakoff himself proved most helpful. In a meeting with House Democrats, some of whom were considering their own versions of private accounts, he urged them to hold firm against Bush's plan. ''I pointed out that as soon as you allow them to get a privatization frame in people's minds about retirement and Social Security, it becomes an unintelligible difference,'' he recalled. ''People will not be able to tell the difference between your plan and the other guy's.'' Referring to Pelosi, he added, ''Nancy was saying the same thing, and so they stopped.'' As Democrats stood firm, Bush's idea for private accounts, which was never all that popular with voters to begin with, seemed to slowly lose altitude. A Gallup tracking poll conducted for CNN and USA Today showed the president's plan losing support, from 40 percent of voters in January to 33 percent in April.
Bush had tried to recast his proposed ''private accounts'' as ''personal accounts'' after it became clear to both sides that privatization, as a concept, frightened voters. But as they did on the filibuster, Democrats had managed to trap the president in his own linguistic box. ''We branded them with privatization, and they can't sell that brand anywhere,'' Pelosi bragged when I spoke with her in May. ''It's down to, like, 29 percent or something. At the beginning of this debate, voters were saying that the president was a president who had new ideas. Now he's a guy who wants to cut my benefits.'' At this, Pelosi laughed loudly.
What Democrats Learned
What had Democrats learned about framing? In the end, the success of the Social Security effort -- and, for that matter, the filibuster campaign -- may have had something to do with language or metaphor, but it probably had more to do with the elusive virtue of party discipline. Pelosi explained it to me this way: for years, the party's leaders had tried to get restless Democrats to stay ''on message,'' to stop freelancing their own rogue proposals and to continue reading from the designated talking points even after it got excruciatingly boring to do so. Consultants like Garin and Margolis had been saying the same thing, but Democratic congressmen, skeptical of the in-crowd of D.C. strategists, had begun to tune them out. ''Listening to people inside Washington did not produce any victories,'' Pelosi said.
But now there were people from outside Washington -- experts from the worlds of academia and Silicon Valley -- who were making the same case. What the framing experts had been telling Democrats on the Hill, aside from all this arcane stuff about narratives and neural science, was that they needed to stay unified and repeat the same few words and phrases over and over again. And these ''outsiders'' had what Reid and Pelosi and their legion of highly paid consultants did not: the patina of scientific credibility. Culturally, this made perfect sense. If you wanted Republican lawmakers to buy into a program, you brought in a guy like Frank Luntz, an unapologetically partisan pollster who dressed like the head of the College Republicans. If you wanted Democrats to pay attention, who better to do the job than an egghead from Berkeley with an armful of impenetrable journal studies on the workings of the brain?
You might say that Lakoff and the others managed to give the old concept of message discipline a new, more persuasive frame -- and that frame was called ''framing.'' ''The framing validates what we're trying to say to them,'' Pelosi said. ''You have a Berkeley professor saying, 'This is how the mind works; this is how people perceive language; this is how you have to be organized in your presentation.' It gives me much more leverage with my members.''
In a recent morning in his Virginia office, seated next to one of those one-way glass walls that you find only in the offices of cops and pollsters, Frank Luntz explained why George Lakoff and his framing theory were leading the Democratic Party astray. In recent years, Luntz's penchant for publicity -- he is a frequent commentator on cable television -- has earned him no small amount of scorn and ridicule from fellow Republicans; that Lakoff's little book had suddenly elevated Luntz to a kind of mythic villain seemed to amuse him. ''In some ways, the Democrats appreciate me more than the Republicans do,'' Luntz, 43, told me with a trace of self-pity.
The problem with Lakoff, Luntz said, is that the professor's ideology seemed to be driving his science. Luntz, after all, has never made for a terribly convincing conservative ideologue. (During our conversation, he volunteered that the man he admired most was the actor Peter Sellers, for his ability to disappear into whatever role he was given.) Luntz sees Lakoff, by contrast, as a doctrinaire liberal who believes viscerally that if Democrats are losing, it has to be because of the words they use rather than the substance of the argument they make. What Lakoff didn't realize, Luntz said, was that poll-tested phrases like ''tax relief'' were successful only because they reflected the values of voters to begin with; no one could sell ideas like higher taxes and more government to the American voter, no matter how they were framed. To prove it, Luntz, as part of his recent polling for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, specifically tested some of Lakoff's proposed language on taxation. He said he found that even when voters were reminded of the government's need to invest in education, health care, national security and retirement security, 66 percent of them said the United States overtaxed its citizenry and only 14 percent said we were undertaxed. Luntz presented this data to chamber officials on a slide with the headline ''George Lakoff Is Wrong!!''
''He deserves a lot of credit,'' Luntz said of Lakoff. ''He's one of the very few guys who understands the limits of liberal language. What he doesn't understand is that there are also limits on liberal philosophy. They think that if they change all the words, it'll make a difference. Won't happen.'' (Last month, after we talked, Luntz challenged Lakoff, through me, to a ''word-off'' in which each man would try to ''move'' a roomful of 30 swing voters. Lakoff responded by counterchallenging Luntz to an ''on-the-spot conceptual analysis.'' Since I had no idea what either of them was talking about, I let it go.)
Luntz's dismissiveness is what you might expect to hear about Lakoff from a Republican, of course. But the same complaint has surfaced with growing ferocity among skeptical Democrats and in magazines like The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic. An antiframing backlash has emerged, and while it is, on the surface, an argument about Lakoff and his theories, it is clearly also a debate about whether the party lacks only for language or whether it needs a fresher agenda. Lakoff's detractors say that it is he who resembles the traveling elixir salesman, peddling comforting answers at a time when desperate Democrats should be admitting some hard truths about their failure to generate new ideas. ''Every election defeat has a charlatan, some guy who shows up and says, 'Hey, I marketed the lava lamp, and I can market Democratic politics,''' says Kenneth Baer, a former White House speechwriter who wrote an early article attacking Lakoff's ideas in The Washington Monthly. ''At its most basic, it represents the Democratic desire to find a messiah.''
In a devastating critique in The Atlantic's April issue, Marc Cooper, a contributing editor at The Nation, skillfully ridiculed Lakoff as the new progressive icon. ''Much more than an offering of serious political strategy, 'Don't Think of an Elephant!' is a feel-good, self-help book for a stratum of despairing liberals who just can't believe how their common-sense message has been misunderstood by eternally deceived masses,'' Cooper wrote. In Lakoff's view, he continued, American voters are ''redneck, chain-smoking, baby-slapping Christers desperately in need of some gender-free nurturing and political counseling by organic-gardening enthusiasts from Berkeley.''
Lakoff doesn't have much patience for criticism (he's a tenured professor, after all), and he keeps at his disposal a seemingly bottomless arsenal of linguistic and philosophical theories with which to refute such attacks. In response to Cooper's article and another in The Atlantic, by Joshua Green, Lakoff fired off a nine-page draft response to a long e-mail list of friends and journalists in which he accused Cooper and Green of living in the ''rationalist-materialist paradigm'' (that's RAM for short), an outdated belief system that mistakenly assumes the rationality of other human beings. He also pointed out that they had cleverly, but unsuccessfully, tried to trap him in the ''guru frame,'' a story line about one individual who passes himself off as having all the answers to other people's problems.
Lakoff has some valid points. In his writing, at least, he explains framing in a way that is more intellectually complex than his critics have admitted. His essential insight into politics -- that voters make their decisions based on larger frames rather than on the sum of a candidate's positions -- is hard to refute. And Lakoff does say in ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' albeit very briefly, that Democrats need not just new language but also new thought; he told me the party suffers from ''hypocognition,'' or a lack of ideas. What's more, when it comes to the language itself, Lakoff has repeatedly written that the process of reframing American political thought will take years, if not decades, to achieve. He does not suggest in his writing that a few catchy slogans can turn the political order on its head by the next election.
The message Lakoff's adherents seem to take away from their personal meetings with him, however, is decidedly more simplistic. When I asked Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip and one of Lakoff's strongest supporters, whether Lakoff had talked to the caucus about this void of new ideas in the party, Durbin didn't hesitate. ''He doesn't ask us to change our views or change our philosophy,'' Durbin said. ''He tells us that we have to recommunicate.'' In fact, Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff's work, that the Republicans have triumphed ''by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,'' the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language.
The question here is whether Lakoff purposely twists his own academic theories to better suit his partisan audience or whether his followers are simply hearing what they want to hear and ignoring the rest. When I first met Lakoff in Los Angeles, he made it clear, without any prompting from me, that he was exasperated by the dumbing down of his intricate ideas. He had just been the main attraction at a dinner with Hollywood liberals, and he despaired that all they had wanted from him were quick fixes to long-term problems. ''They all just want to know the magic words,'' he told me. ''I say: 'You don't understand, there aren't any magic words. It's about ideas.' But all everyone wants to know is: 'What three words can we use? How do we win the next election?' They don't get it.''
And yet Lakoff had spoken for 12 minutes and then answered questions at the U.C.L.A. forum with Huffington and Frank, and not once had he even implied that the Democratic problem hadn't been entirely caused by Republicans or that it couldn't be entirely fixed by language. The more time I spent with Lakoff, in fact, the more I began to suspect that his complaint about ''magic words'' was another example of framing; in this case, Lakoff was consciously framing himself in his conversations with me as a helpless academic whose theories were being misused. The reality seemed to be that Lakoff was enjoying his sudden fame and popularity too much to bother his followers with troubling details -- like, say, the notion that their problem might be bigger than mere words or that it might take decades to establish new political frames. After all, Lakoff is selling out theaters and making more money than he ever thought possible; in 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish his next book, on how conservatives have changed the meaning of the word ''freedom.'' At one point, Lakoff told me he would like to appear as the host of a regular TV segment on framing.
Peter Teague, who oversees environmental programs at the liberal Nathan Cummings Foundation, was Lakoff's most important patron in the days after he wrote ''Moral Politics.'' When I spoke with Teague about Lakoff a few months ago, he sounded a little depressed. ''There's a cartoon version of Lakoff out there, and everyone's responding to the cartoon,'' Teague said. ''It's not particularly useful. As much as we talk about having a real dialogue and a deeper discussion, we really end up having a very superficial conversation.
''I keep saying to George, 'You're reinforcing the very things you're fighting against.'''
I asked Lakoff, during an afternoon walk across the Berkeley campus, if he felt at all complicit in the superficiality that Teague was describing. ''I do,'' he said thoughtfully. ''It's a complicated problem. Of course it bothers me. But this is just Stage 1, and there are stages of misunderstanding. People have to travel a path of understanding.''
His celebrity may yet prove to be his undoing. When I visited him in Berkeley in April, Lakoff, who until then had done all his work with Washington Democrats on a volunteer basis, had submitted a proposal to leaders in the House for a consulting contract. Although the details were closely guarded, it had something to do with a project to use focus groups to study narrative. In May, House Democrats decided not to finalize the deal after some members and senior aides wondered out loud if Lakoff mania had gotten out of hand. Lakoff, it seemed, was experiencing a common Washington phenomenon to which Frank Luntz could easily relate: the more famous an adviser gets, the more politicians begin to suspect him of trying to further himself at their expense. A friend of Lakoff's suggested to me that we were witnessing the beginning of an all-too-familiar frame: the meteoric rise and dizzying fall of a political sensation.
Is "Framing" Working?
If that were true, it seemed, then the whole notion of framing might just be a passing craze, like some post-election macarena. It certainly sounded like that might be the case when I visited Harry Reid just before Memorial Day. Reid waved away the suggestion that language had much to do with the party's recent successes. ''If you want my honest opinion, and I know you do, I think people make too much out of that,'' he said. ''I'm not a person who dwells on all these people getting together and spending hours and days coming up with the right words. I know that my staff thinks, 'Oh, why don't you tell him about all this great work we've done on framing?' But honestly, that's not it.''
Reid credited the ''team effort'' and message discipline of the caucus for its victory on the filibuster issue. At one point, when I asked Reid, a former boxer, about Lakoff's theories, he seemed to equate them with psychotherapy. ''I'm not going to waste a lot of time sitting in a room talking about how my parents weren't good to me or something like that,'' Reid said firmly. ''I'm not involved in any of that gimmickry.''
After leaving Reid, I walked across the Capitol to see Nancy Pelosi, who told a different story. She assured me that Lakoff's ideas had ''forever changed'' the way Democratic House members thought about politics. ''He has taken people here to a place, whether you agree or disagree with his particular frame, where they know there has to be a frame,'' she told me. ''They all agree without any question that you don't speak on Republican terms. You don't think of an elephant.''
I suggested that maybe she and Reid had different views on the value of framing as a strategy. ''Oh, no,'' she said emphatically, drawing out the last word. ''He's been a leader on it! The two of us know better than anyone what's at stake here. In fact, he sort of initiated our abuse-of-power frame.''
It was hard to know what to make of these conflicting conversations. Perhaps Reid feared that if he admitted to caring about framing, he would be framed as one of those clueless Democrats seeking easy answers. Perhaps Pelosi was covering for him by suggesting they were unified when in fact they weren't. But it seemed more likely that the disconnect between the party's two elected leaders reflected a broader confusion among Democrats about what they actually mean by framing. There is no doubt that having a central theme and repeating it like robots has made Democrats a respectable opposition force in Congress. To Pelosi and a lot of other Democrats, that is the miracle of this thing called framing. To Reid, it is just an intuitive part of politics, and he doesn't need some professor to give it a name or tell him that Democrats haven't been very good at it.
Whatever you call it, this kind of message discipline will be a crucial piece of what will most likely become, in the weeks ahead, a Democratic push to block Bush's designs on the Supreme Court. In order to stop a nominee, Democrats will have to frame the filibuster battle in the public arena all over again, and this time, they will have to convince voters that it is Bush's specific choice for the nation's highest court -- and not simply a slate of faceless judges -- who represents the reckless arrogance of Republican rule. Even in the hours after O'Connor made her announcement, you could see in Democratic responses the first stirrings of this new campaign. ''If the president abuses his power and nominates someone who threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people,'' said Ted Kennedy, lifting lines directly from Garin's latest polling memo, ''then the American people will insist that we oppose that nominee, and we intend to do so.'' Meanwhile, Susan McCue, Reid's powerful chief of staff, offered me a preview of the theory to come: ''It goes beyond 'abuse of power.' It's about arrogance, irresponsibility, being out of touch and catering to a narrow, narrow slice of their ideological constituency at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.''
It is not inconceivable that such an argument could sway public opinion; Americans are congenitally disposed to distrust whichever party holds power. The larger question -- too large, perhaps, for most Democrats to want to consider at the moment -- is whether they can do more with language and narrative than simply snipe at Bush's latest initiative or sink his nominees. Here, the Republican example may be instructive. In 1994, Republican lawmakers, having heeded Bill Kristol's advice and refused to engage in the health-care debate, found themselves in a position similar to where Democrats are now; they had weakened the president and spiked his trademark proposal, and they knew from Luntz's polling that the public harbored serious reservations about the Democratic majority in Congress. What they did next changed the course of American politics. Rather than continue merely to deflect Clinton's agenda, Republicans came up with their own, the Contract With America, which promised 10 major legislative acts that were, at the time, quite provocative. They included reforming welfare, slashing budget deficits, imposing harsher criminal penalties and cutting taxes on small businesses. Those 10 items, taken as a whole, encapsulated a rigid conservative philosophy that had been taking shape for 30 years -- and that would define politics at the end of the 20th century.
Democrats New Brand Image
By contrast, consider the declaration that House Democrats produced after their session with John Cullinane, the branding expert, last fall. The pamphlet is titled ''The House Democrats' New Partnership for America's Future: Six Core Values for a Strong and Secure Middle Class.'' Under each of the six values -- ''prosperity, national security, fairness, opportunity, community and accountability'' -- is a wish list of vague notions and familiar policy ideas. (''Make health care affordable for every American,'' ''Invest in a fully funded education system that gives every child the skills to succeed'' and so on.) Pelosi is proud of the document, which -- to be fair -- she notes is just a first step toward repackaging the party's agenda. But if you had to pick an unconscious metaphor to attach to it, it would probably be a cotton ball.
Consider, too, George Lakoff's own answer to the Republican mantra. He sums up the Republican message as ''strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government and family values,'' and in ''Don't Think of an Elephant!'' he proposes some Democratic alternatives: ''Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility.'' Look at the differences between the two. The Republican version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country. Should we spend more or less on the military? Should government regulate industry or leave it unfettered? Lakoff's formulation, on the other hand, amounts to a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life. Who out there wants to make the case against prosperity and a better future? Who doesn't want an effective government?
What all these middling generalities suggest, perhaps, is that Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.
Matt Bai, a contributing writer, covers national politics for the magazine. He is working on a book about the future of the Democrats.
Supreme Court Nominee John Roberts - Selected Quotes on Framing
July 20, 20005
"I do think there will be a significant battle," said Stephen Wermiel, law professor at American University in Washington.
"The Democrats are already framing the battle in one of two possible ways: One is saying we know your views, Judge Roberts, and we think you're too conservative. Second, we don't know enough about your views and you're not telling us enough in the confirmation hearings," he said.
July 20, 2005
The Senate has the chance to frame a national conversation about the court and our future. For its own legitimacy in uncertain straits, the court should avoid radical swings. The Senate, on our behalf, should make sure that this is a judge who will bring practical wisdom, respect for other branches and the people, and, above all, humility. For only with humility can the people on the court honestly grapple with what will come before them.
Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard Law School, was a law clerk along with John G. Roberts Jr. at the Supreme Court during its October 1981 term.
Issues that will frame the debate
Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 2005
The issues in play are central: abortion and other privacy rights, affirmative action, church-state separation, states' rights vs. federal power, the environment, property rights. When Roberts's name leaked out early Tuesday evening, activists from both sides pushed the button on e-mails aimed at framing the debate.
As they have done for weeks, conservative groups sought to preempt the expected liberal argument that Bush's nominee is an "extremist" who will threaten Americans' rights.
When Bush announced Roberts, liberal groups expressed alarm and disappointment over the pick. Though Roberts has a slim public record, feminist and civil liberties group instantly highlighted a 1990 brief that said, "We continue to believe that Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled," a reference to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a national right to abortion.
July 20, 2005 - Howard Dean, Democratic Party National Chair
"It is disappointing that when President Bush had the chance to bring the country together, he instead turned to a nominee who may have impressive legal credentials, but also has sharp partisan credentials that cannot be ignored.
"Democrats take very seriously the responsibility to protect the individual rights of all Americans and are committed to ensuring that ideological judicial activists are not appointed to the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee will now have the opportunity to see if Judge Roberts can put his partisanship aside, and live up to a Supreme Court Justice's duty to uphold the rights and freedoms of every American and the promise of equal justice for all."
July 20, 2005 - Ken Mehlamn, Republican Party National Chair
“I applaud President Bush’s decision to nominate Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court. The President’s thorough and deliberative selection has yielded a remarkably fair and impartial jurist who will undoubtedly serve the nation’s highest court with the utmost integrity, and respect for American jurisprudence.
“Judge Roberts’ reputation as an unparalleled legal mind and compassionate jurist has earned the highest praise from his colleagues across the legal community. His unanimous confirmation by the United States Senate in 2003 to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, at a time of intense partisan gamesmanship and judicial filibusters, is testimony to his wide breadth of support. As Judge John Roberts’ confirmation process moves forward, it is my hope that it proceeds in a manner as fair, thoughtful, and cooperative as the manner in which he was nominated.”
July 21, 2005 MoveOn.Org
"President Bush nominated this corporate lawyer to add to the right-wing activist block of [Justices] Scalia and Thomas," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. "Instead of a mainstream jurist with a distinguished career as someone who protects the rights of the American people, Bush chose another right-wing crony. "
July 21, 2005 Fairness & Accruacy in Reporting
The media have settled on a conventional wisdom about the failed 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. As the oft-repeated story goes, Bork's supporters were somehow unable to mount any kind of pro-Bork campaign as a well-organized liberal opposition outmaneuvered them and doomed Bork's chances to be a Supreme Court justice. This conventional wisdom bears little resemblance to what actually occurred--but it's a very useful myth for conservative activists preparing for a possible confirmation battle over Bush nominee John G. Roberts.Unfortunately, reporters are now allowing these conservative complaints to frame much of their reporting. Rather than accepting this as the natural working of a system that is designed to check the president's power to select justices, the media has decided to present this as an injustice--using "bork" as a verb meaning "to attack a person's reputation and views unfairly"
Daily Kos 7/20/2005
With the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, President Bush has trapped Democrats in the frame of "polite politics."
With the exception of Chris Bowers over at MyDD.com, Democrats all over the place are voicing the same argument: let's be polite until we learn more.
Think about this: Why do we believe it is impolite to aggressively question the nominee of George W. Bush?
We believe that it is impolite because the GOP has spent millions promoting the idea that Democrats will fight anything. That is the frame for the Supreme Court nomination: angry liberals. It is amazing how quickly it has taken control of even the best minds out there.
A cursory glance at sites like the Judicial Confirmation Network--a partisan front set up to advance President Bush's Supreme Court agenda--exists solely to advance one idea: Democrats block nominees.
Time and time again Democrats have faced this particular framing problem and been unable to understand what is happening. And it is happening again.
The goal of the "Democrats obstruct" frame is to shut down all criticism of the President's policies by focusing attention on process. That is the goal. "Democrats are bad Americans because they block the process."
Right now, Democrats are afraid to break this frame because John Roberts has such a fragile demeanor. It is one thing to attack Karl Rove, a well known political assassin. But it is another to attack a judge with a relatively unknown record and such an angelic face.
Democrats must break frame to win this debate. The idea that Democrats can be calm during this nomination and then really kick up the heat for the next one is totally flawed. It's worse than that: it helps the Bush White House by reinforcing the "polite politics" frame.
President Bush has never in his life nominated somebody to the court who did not have a history of obedience to the Bush family. Not one time. For President Bush, a nomination is a reward not an accomplishment.
What is John Roberts being rewarded for? In what way has John Roberts played "Mr. Obedience" to President Bush?
Two issues come to mind:
SECRET PRISONS: John Roberts supported and gave legal legitimacy to Donald Rumsfeld's legal battle to hold prisoners in Cuba with a secret process.
ANTI-EQUALITY TERRORISTS: John Roberts has a history of arguing in favor of the rights of terrorist groups that attacked doctors and women at medical clinics.
It will take some time to generate specifics and talking points about these two issues, but that does not mean that Democrats should sit back and re-enforce the GOP "polite politics" frame.
We can start by saying:John Roberts has a history of obeying the President, both as an advocate and as a judge.
President Bush looks for nominees with a history of obedience.
Will John Roberts continue to obey the President if confirmed?
This is not about yelling or being angry. George W. Bush has shown time and time again that he believes the purpose of government is to obey the will of the President. And he has nominated and promoted those individuals who have proven their loyalty to the President by obeying even the most questionable requests.
America deserves a Supreme Court justice who obeys the Constitution, not a Justice who obeys the President.
We must break the "polite politics" frame and break it now.
They steal it by putting the debate back into the real story that concerns Americans. That story is not about a judicial nominee, but about a President who has turned the White House into a private club, where only those who know the secret handshake can enter, everyone else must wait outside. The real story that concerns Americans is about a President who hides from the very people who elected him, who leads the nation on an endless cat and mouse game about who said what and where and when, all while the nation's sons and daughters bleed to death on the streets of Baghdad fighting for what they believe is the truth.
The real story is that Americans are worried. Americans are worried about a President who hides from them instead of standing with them. Americans are worried about a President who shrouds himself in secrecy, but then distributes national secrets to destroy his political opponents. Americans are worried that their President inspired their children to a fight for the country based on false evidence, but then never had the courage to stand up and tell the truth. Americans are worried that in a time of such uncertainty, with bombs blowing up our closest friends and allies, our President hides behind a wall of lawyers. Americans are worried that their President is no longer their President, but has become a man obsessed with keeping secrets, consumed by destroying his enemies, and surrounded by cronies who will obey his will whatever the cost.
Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2005
Critics of John G. Roberts Jr. are turning to populist economic arguments to thwart his nomination to the Supreme Court, echoing one of the themes Al Gore used against George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign.
In their first reactions to Roberts, many of the Democrats and liberal groups resisting his selection by President Bush are trying to portray him as a threat to the economic interests of average families. The strategy — even the language — is similar to Gore's effort to frame the 2000 presidential campaign as a choice between "the people" and "the powerful."
PopPolitics.com, July 22,2005
Using what almost everyone agrees is likely to be unsuccessful effort to block the nomination as a vehicle to explode, once and for all, the myth that liberal jurists, to the extent any still exist, are “judicial activists,” while conservative jurists are “strict constructionists.”
Anyone with any degree of knowledge on the subject and even a small degree of intellectual honesty knows this is a crock. Yet it continues to frame the public debate, to the right’s considerable advantage. Among other things, this helps provide cover for Bush in making ideologically extreme appointments to the bench.
With the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court, we are once again engaged in the unpleasant argument over who's religious and who isn't. In Roberts's case, it's who's a good Catholic, and who isn't.
It's a way for Republicans to frame the debate so it's shut down before it can begin. Ask Roberts, who's Catholic, a question, and you are immediately cast as anti-religious.
USA Today, July 28, 2005
One risk that critics of Bush's choice run by not hitting the airwaves now, Tracey says, is losing any chance to frame the debate over Roberts' nomination on their terms. With its "brilliant" ad and an earlier spot that warned liberals would attack any nominee, "Progress for America has been able to put this nomination on second base, with no outs," he says.
Religious Action Center, July 29, 2005
"America is at her best when each individual is enfranchised and heard, an ideal that our 'Ask Judge Roberts' initiative embodies," said Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the RAC. "While it is the Senate's responsibility to examine whether a nominee is worthy of a seat on our nation's highest Court, it is the American people's right and responsibility to help frame the debate.
The Framing Wars
Anxious Liberal Groups Try to Rally Opposition Against Supreme Court Nominee
By David Kirkpatrick, New York Times, Septemeber 2, 2005
WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 - It was an anxious August for liberal interest groups battling the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court.
In the past week, about 30 groups - including the N.A.A.C.P., Naral Pro-Choice, the National Organization for Women, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and major Hispanic organizations like the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund - formally and forcefully called on the Senate to reject Judge Roberts.
But as they scramble to rally grass-roots supporters in the days before the confirmation hearings and the month before the Senate is expected to vote, some opposition groups worried that their efforts had failed to pierce the din of concerns about rising gasoline prices, casualties in Iraq, and, most recently, the hurricane devastation in New Orleans.
"Now there is this hurricane," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. In exasperation, Ms. Smeal suggested Thursday that the Senate Judiciary Committee should postpone the confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin Tuesday, because the hurricane was distracting attention from debate on the nomination. "This has got to get more visibility," Ms. Smeal said. "We have to do something."
Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington Bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he, too, was hoping for more time. "I think the disadvantage is that the Senate is moving as fast as it is," he said. "With the White House releasing documents as slowly as it has been doing, we would think that the entire Senate would want to be more circumspect."
Still, some opponents of the nomination expressed confidence that their criticism of Judge Roberts's views was registering with Senate Democrats. Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, said he was growing increasingly confident that Judge Roberts's nomination would be defeated.
"There is growing evidence that the confirmation would move the court dramatically to the right, and that is information that the senators did not have before the end of July," Mr. Neas said.
"Our message has been that these hearings will have a major impact on 2006 and 2008," he said.
If Judge Roberts votes against liberal causes, Mr. Neas added, "Democrats are going to be blamed if they were complicit in the confirmation."
In addition to their main champions on the committee, Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, officials of the liberal groups say they will be looking closely at Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin - potential candidates for the Democratic presidential primary.
The officials say they also expect a vigorous fight from Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel's only woman and a major recipient of donations from feminists and supporters of abortion rights.
Aides to those senators, however, said they planned to form their own opinions. "We should listen to what they say, but our focus should be our views on Judge Roberts and who he is," Mr. Schumer said Thursday.
Democratic aides say liberal groups have already been pushing. Last week, Mr. Neas said angrily that the party's caucus had left the impression that Judge Roberts faced little resistance.
Later that day, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Mr. Kennedy, a committee veteran, each sent a letter stepping up their criticism of Judge Roberts.
But Democratic aides bristled at the suggestion that the senators were doing Mr. Neas's bidding.
MoveOn.org, which serves as a barometer of the mood among the liberal base because its solicits donations online to pay for each advertisement it runs, has largely dropped its campaign against Judge Roberts to focus on Iraq.
"The coverage after this nomination focused a great deal on administration spin and a lot of his friends were interviewed and said they liked him," Ben Brandzel, advocacy director of MoveOn.org, said.
Still, Mr. Brandzel argued that the hearings would "shift the frame" of the debate to Mr. Roberts's views and generate more interest. "In previous cases, like Bork, where the nominee hasn't been so slick and smoothly packaged, the frame didn't have to be shifted," he said.
Progress for America, a group with close ties to the Bush administration, bought radio and television advertisements even before the nomination was announced suggesting that liberals would reflexively "tar and feather" whoever the president appointed.
But while the liberal groups studied Judge Roberts's record through August, organizations supporting him were busy organizing local groups in Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Nebraska and elsewhere to push senators to vote for confirmation.
Much at Stake for Democrats in Confirmation Hearings
The party might use the spotlight to try to broaden its electoral appeal. The tactic of showcasing values carries some risk
By Maura Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, Septemeber 10, 2005
For Democrats, more is at stake in the confirmation hearings scheduled next week for John G. Roberts Jr. than the fate of the nominee for chief justice — more at stake, even, than the direction of the Supreme Court.
The Democratic Party, still hurting from losses in the last three national elections, is trying to revamp itself before the next one in 2006. And while much public attention is focused on the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, the nomination hearings offer an opportunity for Democrats to showcase the values and ideas of their party in ways they hope will generate new electoral appeal.
"The Democrats think there's an outside chance they can win the Senate back [in the 2006 elections], and maybe the House," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "The Democrats have a chance here to present themselves as the champion of a series of rights and liberties."
They also have a chance to capitalize on the criticism of the federal relief effort for Hurricane Katrina, pressing their argument that the response demonstrates that the Republican vision of limited government has failed the country.
"While Democrats know they can't defeat Roberts, there will be a certain passion in their questions, given the events of the last week," said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "The bottom line in the debate over Roberts' nomination and in the Katrina disaster is the role of government in our society."
Democrats know that with Republicans in control in the Senate, they have little chance of blocking the confirmation of Roberts, who initially was selected by Bush to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The Democrats could resort to a filibuster, but that tactic could easily backfire with the public. Not only would it reinforce the GOP's attacks on them as obstructionist, but it would be seen by many as highly partisan at a time of national emergency.
Moreover, Bush's decision to replace recently deceased Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist with Roberts, a like-minded conservative, effectively postpones the battle over Democrats' main concern — the court's political balance — until the next nomination. So instead of trying to defeat Roberts, Democrats are likely to use the televised hearings that begin Monday to accomplish two more modest goals: to retool their party's message and to set the stage for the struggle over O'Connor's successor.
"More than anything else, they want to lay down markers for what would be acceptable or unacceptable in the next vacancy," Wittmann said. "That means there will be an intensification of the questions they will ask Roberts because they know they will be sending signals to the administration about the next nomination."
Fortunately for the Democrats, hearings on Supreme Court nominees often are about lofty notions — such as freedom and constitutional rights — that appeal to many voters. Unfortunately for the Democrats, they also tend to focus on hot-button topics — such as abortion and gay rights — that polarize voters.
The key for Democratic senators during the hearings will be to talk more about the loftier matters than controversial subjects, said Lanny Davis, who served in the White House as legal counsel and crisis manager for President Clinton.
"As important as abortion is, it's not a value. It's an issue," Davis said. "The underlying value is individual liberty…. We shouldn't make Judge Roberts about specific issues; we should make it about specific values."
Davis said one of the long-term problems plaguing Democrats is that Republicans have claimed certain values — like individual liberty and judicial restraint — as GOP values. Davis argued that Democrats should reclaim those values.
"I want the Democrats to use … Roberts' hearings to reestablish our commitment to certain values that I believe are liberal values that have been stolen by the conservatives," he said.
In practice, that means Democrats are more likely to talk about the right to privacy than the right to an abortion. And it means they will probably stress the importance of civil rights while steering clear of debates over affirmative action.
The strategy of using the hearings to broaden their appeal holds some dangers for Democrats, warned Paul Freedman, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
"Since the last election, they have made a conscious effort to frame their positions in terms that will appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans," he said. "One of the reasons this is risky for Democrats is that they also need to satisfy their own base, and Senate Democratic leaders can't afford to be seen by their base as capitulating. So, you may see the gloves come off a bit."
But Madonna, the analyst at Franklin & Marshall College, said that considering the hearings would be held during a time of national crisis, Democrats would have to strike a balance between appearing tough and appearing partisan.
"The hurricane might make it a bit less vitriolic," Madonna said. "I just don't think the American people are ready for a televised slugfest."
Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito- Reframing Roe V Wade
January 25, 2006
Throughout the Senate Judiciary Committee's questioning of Judge Samuel Alito during his confirmation hearing, two big issues kept reoccurring. The first was executive power. The second big issue was abortion, and specifically whether Alito believes that Roe v. Wade is settled law.
In the past few days, however, the abortion issue has taken a back seat to the executive power issue. Maybe that's because the NSA spying case is current and hits Americans close to home. Or maybe it's because Roe v. Wade isn't a good unifier. Nearly everyone believes the government should have to obtain a warrant before listening in on citizens' private conversations. But Americans are strongly divided on abortion (though, for the record, two-thirds think it should remain legal).
So one of the major hurdles liberals and progressives need to clear—and not just in relation to Alito's confirmation—is the idea that Roe v. Wade is all about abortion. It's not. And there might be a stronger chance of protecting this vitally important precedent if Americans started viewing the decision more broadly. Planned Parenthood summed it up eloquently today in an e-mail:
Roe v. Wade is about much more than the right to abortion. It's about the right to time pregnancies, space children, and plan families that parents and the planet can support; it's about self-determination and bodily integrity; and it's about how securing these rights gives women an equal place at life's table.
Creating families that parents can support? That's a pretty universal goal. Self-determination? Check. Tough to argue against that. Bodily integrity? It's one of the basic human rights. George Lakoff's famous book Don't Think Of An Elephant! discusses how knowing your target audience's values allows you to frame a successful debate. What if, for the past 33 years, women and men had been discussing Roe v. Wade within this framework of autonomy and viable families? How different could the debate have been if, from the very beginning, it rejected the rhetoric of baby-killing and bloody images and instead focused on strong women and strong families?
If Samuel Alito gets confirmed in the next few days (and right now, that looks pretty likely) it'll be more important than ever to make sure Americans see Roe v. Wade for what it is: a vital safeguard that protects our autonomy, our families and our bodies. Because if Alito has his way, we may soon end up petitioning our state legislators to recognize the same thing.
In Alito, G.O.P. Reaps Harvest Planted in '82
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, New York Times January 30, 2006
Last February, as rumors swirled about the failing health of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a team of conservative grass-roots organizers, public relations specialists and legal strategists met to prepare a battle plan to ensure any vacancies were filled by like-minded jurists.
C. Boyden Gray helped develop a strategy in February 2005 to put conservative judges on the Supreme Court. The team recruited conservative lawyers to study the records of 18 potential nominees — including Judges John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — and trained more than three dozen lawyers across the country to respond to news reports on the president's eventual pick.
"We boxed them in," one lawyer present during the strategy meetings said with pride in an interview over the weekend. This lawyer and others present who described the meeting were granted anonymity because the meetings were confidential and because the team had told its allies not to exult publicly until the confirmation vote was cast.
Now, on the eve of what is expected to be the Senate confirmation of Judge Alito to the Supreme Court, coming four months after Chief Justice Roberts was installed, those planners stand on the brink of a watershed for the conservative movement.
In 1982, the year after Mr. Alito first joined the Reagan administration, that movement was little more than the handful of legal scholars who gathered at Yale for the first meeting of the Federalist Society, a newly formed conservative legal group.
Judge Alito's ascent to join Chief Justice Roberts on the court "would have been beyond our best expectations," said Spencer Abraham, one of the society's founders, a former secretary of energy under President Bush and now the chairman of the Committee for Justice, one of many conservative organizations set up to support judicial nominees.
He added, "I don't think we would have put a lot of money on it in a friendly wager."
Judge Alito's confirmation is also the culmination of a disciplined campaign begun by the Reagan administration to seed the lower federal judiciary with like-minded jurists who could reorient the federal courts toward a view of the Constitution much closer to its 18th-century authors' intent, including a much less expansive view of its application to individual rights and federal power. It was a philosophy promulgated by Edwin Meese III, attorney general in the Reagan administration, that became the gospel of the Federalist Society and the nascent conservative legal movement.
Both Mr. Roberts and Mr. Alito were among the cadre of young conservative lawyers attracted to the Reagan administration's Justice Department. And both advanced to the pool of promising young jurists whom strategists like C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel in the first Bush administration and an adviser to the current White House, sought to place throughout the federal judiciary to groom for the highest court.
"It is a Reagan personnel officer's dream come true," said Douglas W. Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University who worked with Mr. Alito and Mr. Roberts in the Reagan administration. "It is a graduation. These individuals have been in study and preparation for these roles all their professional lives."
As each progressed in legal stature, others were laying the infrastructure of the movement. After the 1987 defeat of the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork conservatives vowed to build a counterweight to the liberal forces that had mobilized to stop him.
With grants from major conservative donors like the John M. Olin Foundation, the Federalist Society functioned as a kind of shadow conservative bar association, planting chapters in law schools around the country that served as a pipeline to prestigious judicial clerkships.
During their narrow and politically costly victory in the 1991 confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas, the Federalist Society lawyers forged new ties with the increasingly sophisticated network of grass-roots conservative Christian groups like Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs and the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss. Many conservative Christian pastors and broadcasters had railed for decades against Supreme Court decisions that outlawed school prayer and endorsed abortion rights.
During the Clinton administration, Federalist Society members and allies had come to dominate the membership and staff of the Judiciary Committee, which turned back many of the administration's nominees. "There was a Republican majority of the Senate, and it tempered the nature of the nominations being made," said Mr. Abraham, the Federalist Society founder who was a senator on the Judiciary Committee at the time.
By 2000, the decades of organizing and battles had fueled a deep demand in the Republican base for change on the court. Mr. Bush tapped into that demand by promising to name jurists in the mold of conservative Justices Thomas and Scalia.
When Mr. Bush named Harriet E. Miers, the White House counsel, as the successor to Justice O'Connor, he faced a revolt from his conservative base, which complained about her dearth of qualifications and ideological bona fides.
"It was a striking example of the grass roots having strong opinions that ran counter to the party leaders about what was attainable," said Stephen G. Calabresi, a law professor at Northwestern University and another founding member of the Federalist Society.
But in October, when President Bush withdrew Ms. Miers's nomination and named Judge Alito, the same network quickly mobilized behind him.
Conservatives had begun planning for a nomination fight as long ago as that February meeting, which was led by Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society and informal adviser to the White House, Mr. Meese and Mr. Gray.
They laid out a two-part strategy to roll out behind whomever the president picked, people present said. The plan: first, extol the nonpartisan legal credentials of the nominee, steering the debate away from the nominee's possible influence over hot-button issues. Second, attack the liberal groups they expected to oppose any Bush nominee.
The team worked through a newly formed group, the Judicial Confirmation Network, to coordinate grass-roots pressure on Democratic senators from conservative states. And they stayed in constant contact with scores of conservative groups around the country to brief them about potential nominees and to make sure they all stuck to the same message. They fine-tuned their strategy for Judge Alito when he was nominated in October by recruiting Italian-American groups to protest the use of the nickname "Scalito," which would have linked him to the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
In November, some Democrats believed they had a chance to defeat the nomination after the disclosure of a 1985 memorandum Judge Alito wrote in the Reagan administration about his conservative legal views on abortion, affirmative action and other subjects.
"It was a done deal," one of the Democratic staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the staff is forbidden to talk publicly about internal meetings. "This was the most evidence we have ever had about a Supreme Court nominee's true beliefs."
Mr. Leo and other lawyers supporting Judge Alito were inclined to shrug off the memorandum, which described views that were typical in their circles, people involved in the effort said. But executives at Creative Response Concepts, the team's public relations firm, quickly convinced them it was "a big deal" that could become the centerpiece of the Democrats' attacks, one of the people said.
"The call came in right away," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice and another lawyer on the Alito team.
Responding to Mr. Alito's 1985 statement that he disagreed strongly with the abortion-rights precedents, for example, "The answer was, 'Of course he was opposed to abortion,' " Mr. Sekulow said. "He worked for the Reagan administration, he was a lawyer representing a client, and it may well have reflected his personal beliefs. But look what he has done as judge."
His supporters deluged news organizations with phone calls, press releases and lawyers to interview, all noting that on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Judge Alito had voted to uphold and to strike down abortion restrictions.
Democrats contended that those arguments were irrelevant because on the lower court Judge Alito was bound by Supreme Court precedent, whereas as a justice he could vote to overturn any precedents with which he disagreed.
By last week it was clear that the judge had enough votes to win confirmation. And the last gasp of resistance came in a Democratic caucus meeting on Wednesday when Senator Edward M. Kennedy, joined by Senator John Kerry, both of Massachusetts, unsuccessfully tried to persuade the party to organize a filibuster.
No one defended Judge Alito or argued that he did not warrant opposition, Mr. Kennedy said in an interview. Instead, opponents of the filibuster argued about the political cost of being accused of obstructionism by conservatives.
Still, on the brink of this victory, some in the conservative movement say the battle over the court has just begun. Justice O'Connor was the swing vote on many issues, but replacing her with a more dependable conservative would bring that faction of the court at most to four justices, not five, and thus not enough to truly reshape the court or overturn precedents like those upholding abortion rights.
"It has been a long time coming," Judge Bork said, "but more needs to be done."
Abortion Ban Puts Strategies in Doubt
South Dakota's test of Roe vs. Wade has both sides wondering if they've moved too fast
By Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2006
South Dakota's ban on nearly all abortions, signed into law Monday, has opened deep rifts within both the antiabortion and the abortion-rights movements, as the two camps struggle to frame the issue to their political advantage.
The divisions have turned traditional abortion politics topsy-turvy.
Some foes of abortion — fearful that South Dakota has moved too far, too fast — now find themselves reluctantly opposing efforts to protect all fetal life from the moment of conception. They are even angling to block another abortion ban that seems likely to pass in Mississippi.
For their part, some abortion-rights activists feel they must acknowledge the sentiment behind the South Dakota ban by assuring America that they, too, regard abortion as a grave moral concern. But such language outrages others in their movement, especially abortion doctors, who feel it stigmatizes and alienates their patients.
"There's a mood out there that change is in the offing," said John Seery, a professor of politics at Pomona College who has written extensively on abortion. "There's a lot of jockeying, a lot of testing, a lot of pushing the envelope."
The turmoil in both camps underscores the significance of South Dakota's law. It bans all abortions in the state, including the few performed each year in cases of rape and incest and the hundreds done in the earliest weeks of pregnancy. The only exception is if physicians deem an abortion necessary to save the mother's life.
Doctors who violate the ban would be subject to as much as five years in prison.
In signing the bill, Republican Gov. Michael Rounds acknowledged it was, for now, a symbolic gesture. The law is due to take effect July 1 but will almost certainly be blocked in the courts because it directly — and deliberately — challenges Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established abortion as a constitutional right.
An anonymous donor has pledged $1 million to help South Dakota defend the new law in court. Citizens of more modest means have also stopped by the governor's office to drop off checks.
Those backers hope the ban will give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reverse Roe vs. Wade, much the way the justices used Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 to overturn a decades-old precedent that allowed segregation in public schools.
But analysts on both sides say Roe is secure for now. Even if President Bush's new Supreme Court appointees — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. — prove to be opponents of Roe, a slim majority of five justices is on record as backing Roe.
Promoters of South Dakota's ban are calculating that one of the liberal justices will retire — and be replaced by a conservative — before their case winds its way to the high court. Daniel McConchie, vice president of the Americans United for Life, warns that the South Dakota strategy could backfire.
If the public knows an all-out ban on abortion is headed to the Supreme Court, "getting a [conservative] justice through the confirmation process will be like World War III," McConchie said.
He'd rather rely on the Roberts court to steadily chip away at abortion rights without overturning Roe outright. For instance, he's hoping that in an upcoming case on the procedure that is called "partial-birth abortion" by opponents like him, the justices might give states more leeway to restrict second- and third-trimester procedures.
Many states ban abortions of viable fetuses, but the Supreme Court has so far insisted that such laws exempt women whose health is endangered by the pregnancy — and health can be defined broadly to include not just her physical condition, but also her emotional state, and even her family circumstances.
McConchie said he thought there was a good chance the present court would "narrow that loophole."
Such incremental steps would save many more fetuses than South Dakota's ban, said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life. "As a pro-lifer, I feel guilty saying this, because people are out there all excited, but a ban is actually counterproductive," she said.
She and others argue that their movement needs more time to turn society firmly against abortion. They want to hold public hearings to investigate the alleged (and hotly disputed) risks of abortion. They plan to promote ultrasounds to fix an image in the public's mind of the embryo as a beautiful, human life. They aim to use more women who have had abortions — and now regret it — as spokeswomen for their cause.
Until then, they're reluctantly advising legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee not to pass the bans under consideration in those states.
Instead, they urge legislators to pass provisions such as requiring a woman to attend counseling and to wait a day or more before getting an abortion. The latest trend is to require doctors to show a woman her ultrasound or to inform her that the fetus might feel pain during an abortion.
Legislatures are also continuing to drive abortion clinics out of business with a wide variety of regulations, including the width of the hallways and whether out-of-state doctors can come in to perform abortions.
There is one clinic in South Dakota, for example, another in Mississippi and two in Missouri (one of which only offers first-trimester abortions two half-days a month).
Missouri state Sen. Jason Crowell — like his colleagues in South Dakota — refuses to be satisfied with making abortions harder to obtain. He views the procedure as an unambiguous evil and says the time is past due to act, no matter who's sitting on the Supreme Court.
"We've been debating this since 1973," Crowell said. "If not now, when? If not us, who?"
In Mississippi, that philosophy propelled a ban on abortion (except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life) to an overwhelming victory in the Mississippi House last week. The bill looked poised to pass the Senate and Gov. Haley Barbour had pledged to sign it. On Monday, though, antiabortion activists called off their drive to pass the bill and asked for time to rethink the strategy.
"We're trying to get a consensus," said Terri Herring, president of Pro-Life Mississippi. "What we don't want is five different pro-life voices out there."
The abortion-rights side has had even more trouble finding a unified voice.
The liberal think tank Third Way is circulating a memo on Capitol Hill advising politicians who support abortion rights to recalibrate their message. Instead of stressing a woman's right to choose, they should tell voters that they support "personal liberty," but accept that it's a "moral responsibility" to reduce the number of abortions. (That number has declined steadily from a peak of 1.43 million in 1990 to 1.29 million in 2002, the latest year statistics are available.)
A number of abortion-rights activists have bought into that strategy. They've been on the defensive for more than two decades, ever since conservative and fundamentalist Christians began pushing social issues like abortion to the forefront of political debate.
They view South Dakota's ban as a watershed moment, and are determined to seize the opportunity to switch from defense to offense.
"Talking about prevention really resonates with voters, because it's positive, it's proactive … it makes constituents feel good," said Julie Burkhart, the executive director of ProKanDo, an abortion-rights lobby in Kansas.
Such tactical positioning infuriates Dr. Warren Hern, who runs an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo. He, too, would like to see fewer women with unwanted pregnancies; he counsels all his patients on contraception. But in his view, the availability of safe, legal abortions should be a cause for national pride — not shame.
He urges politicians to respond to the South Dakota ban with statements like this: "Before 1973, women were dying like flies from illegal abortions. That has stopped, and it's one of the great public health success stories of the 20th century."
Susan Hill agrees. She's president of the National Women's Health Organization, which runs abortion clinics in five states, and she has been flooded with calls and e-mails from supporters outraged at South Dakota's ban.
Hill sees only one way to capitalize on that anger: a campaign to remind Americans that abortion is one of the most common surgical procedures in this country. One out of every three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.
"We need to make people realize that this is about them: Their family. Their daughter," Hill said.
Above all, she said: "We have to stop apologizing" for the nation's abortion rate — and start mobilizing the millions of women "who believe it was the best choice for them."
If her side can do that, "this might be the best thing that ever happened to the pro-choice movement," Hill said.
With both camps in such flux, Seery, the Pomona College professor, has given up trying to peg winners and losers.
"There is no conventional wisdom at this point," he said. "The traditional camps aren't pursuing the traditional strategies … All bets are off. We're in a period of transition."
Progressive Values 101
by BERNIE HORN, June 26, 2006
It is an exaggeration to say that today's progressives don't have a philosophy. Progressives have a fairly consistent agenda--we know what we stand for. The problem is, we don't have an effective framework to communicate our philosophy to persuadable voters. Because a crucial election looms before us, progressive thinkers are rightfully focusing on this problem. But in fashioning a solution, we must insure that the language we use speaks to the Americans we are trying to persuade. This is a challenge, because most persuadable voters are not like us--they are normal people. Unlike us, they don't think much about public policy, they don't have a policy checklist for candidates and they don't speak policy or use intellectual jargon.
How do we persuade people who are so different? By assuring them that we share their values. "Values" need not be the anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science mores of the right wing. In politics, they are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. There is a set of values that progressives can employ to frame public policy in language that will win over persuadable voters. And to those we are trying to reach, our values will sound very familiar: freedom, opportunity, security and responsibility.
What's so special about these rather moderate-sounding words? First, they resonate with all Americans. When we use these values to describe and defend progressive policies, voters understand that we're on their side. But more important, they summarize a progressive philosophy that voters can grasp and remember. Successful message framing isn't just repetition of preselected words and phrases. (Anybody remember how often Kerry said "values"?) The trick is using those words and phrases to communicate a coherent set of principles--a vision for the future.
We can begin by defining the proper roles of government. Progressive policies fit fairly well into three situations, where: (1) government has no proper role because public action would violate individual rights; (2) government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests; or (3) government acts to protect those who cannot protect themselves, including future generations.
Where government has no proper role, the progressive value we should speak of is "freedom." The idea of freedom is deeply ingrained in American history. It is universally popular. Oddly, progressives rarely talk about freedom, perhaps because we are afraid that defending civil liberties makes us unpopular. But that's the point of values--to help us bridge the gap between popular ideals and policies that truly uphold them.
Where government acts as a referee, the progressive value is "opportunity." Americans believe in a land of opportunity where hard work is rewarded and everyone has equal access to the American Dream. Equal opportunity means a level playing field--fair dealings between the powerful and the less powerful, the elimination of discrimination and a quality education for all.
Where government acts as a protector, the progressive value is "security." Conservatives want to narrow the definition of security to mean only protection from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists. But Americans understand that protection of our health and well-being is also security. Insuring the sick and vulnerable, safeguarding the food we eat and products we use and preserving our environment are all essential to US security.
While progressives work to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all Americans, conservatives try to limit these rights to a select few. When conservatives restrict basic reproductive rights, authorize warrantless police searches and impose their creationist doctrine on schoolchildren, they are trampling on American freedoms. When they block antidiscrimination laws and traffic in government favors, no-bid contracts and economic development give-aways, they are crushing equal opportunity. When conservatives try to gut Social Security, dismantle programs that protect our health, safety and environment and grossly mishandle the terrorism threat, they are wrecking our security.
All this brings us to "responsibility," the value that most plainly sets progressives apart from conservatives. We take responsibility for the well-being of our nation by crafting policies to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all. Conservatives cynically turn the word inside out by chanting a mantra of "personal responsibility." They mean that unemployment, hunger and discrimination are the individual's problem, not society's. In this way, conservatives twist the language of responsibility to avoid responsibility. It's downright Orwellian.
So let's talk the talk: When advocating a public policy, let's emphasize freedom if government action would violate individual rights, opportunity if government should act as a referee and security if government should act as a protector. And let's point out that the progressive position takes responsibility for solving the problem, while the conservative position abdicates it. Here's a brief example: "America should truly be a land of opportunity. But the current minimum wage denies workers the opportunity to support a family. We have a responsibility to make the American Dream more than just a fantasy. Those who oppose raising the minimum wage are shirking that responsibility."
Polls consistently demonstrate that our policies are very popular. Americans want fair wages and benefits, consumer protections, quality education, a clean environment and healthcare for all. But many persuadable voters don't trust us to deliver these programs, because they don't understand our philosophy. Let's explain ourselves in language that voters will understand and appreciate. Let's make it clear that, for progressives, "values" is not just a buzzword. And, this time around, let's win.
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