Luntz and Begala

LUNTZ AND BEGALA…. Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently distributed a 28-page memo, “The Language of Health Care,” to help Republican lawmakers undermine health care reform efforts. He talked to the NYT‘s Deborah Solomon this week, but wasn’t exactly prepared to discuss the issue at hand.

After Luntz explained that “takeover” is “a word that grabs attention,” which is why he and other Republicans “want to avoid ‘a Washington takeover,'” Solomon noted the phrasing is fundamentally misleading: “What the Democrats want is for everyone to be able to choose between their old, private health-insurance plan and an all-new, public health-insurance option.”

Luntz replied, “I’m not a policy person. I’m a language person.”

Those are nine words that say an awful lot. Luntz’s job is to help kill important legislation through rhetorical manipulation. His job is not, however, to know what he’s talking about. The debate isn’t about what (or who) is right; it’s about what Luntz thinks he can get away with. (Asked who paid him to write the health care memo, Luntz refused to answer, saying the issue is “not relevant.”)

Democratic strategist Paul Begala, to his credit, put together a pretty detailed, point-by-point response, to the Luntz memo, with some advice for Democrats about how to approach the debate.

Veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz has circulated a memo which attempts to teach Republicans how to kill health care reform by misleading people. Because they know they cannot win the argument honestly, Republicans are resorting to mendacity. Democrats must not let them get away with it.

There is one fact that animates the Republicans’ strategy. It should animate yours as well. That fact is this: the overwhelming majority of American support health care reform. In fact, Dr. Luntz himself notes that voters trust Democrats over Republicans by a whopping 20 percent on health care. If health care reform were unpopular, Republicans would not resort to misleading rhetoric to mask their opposition. The striking thing about Luntz’s memo is how the rhetoric he advocates apes our message. The Republicans have three goals:

1. Co-opt our messaging; 2. Confuse voters; and 3. Kill health care reform.

Democrats should take their cue from Sen. Mitchell. Voters are not going to fall for Republican rhetoric — as long as we don’t.

Igor Volsky added, “Progressives need to answer conservative attacks by defending progressive proposals on their merits — as Begala does — rather than resorting to the comfortable/familiar rhetoric of ‘affordable health care for all’ or ‘shared responsibility.’ Such buzz language has doomed past reform efforts. As Haynes Johnson and David Broder argue in their analysis of President Clinton’s failed health care reform effort, by relying on hollow buzz words, rather than policy specifics, the Clintons allowed the opposition to ascribe meaning to reform rhetoric. Let’s hope we don’t make that same mistake again.”

In the meantime, GOP leaders are carefully following Luntz’s script. It’s prompted some to begin playing “Frank Luntz Bingo.”