Saturday, July 16, 2005

Framing the Debate

The New York Times magazine has an article by Matt Bai about Lakoff and framing. Since the article is currently not available on line, I'll just address the concluding paragraphs:

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 proposessome Democratic alternatives: "Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government, and mutual responsibility." Look at the differences between the two. The Republicans 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 ot 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 Democrates 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.

OK, let's take the first "concrete choice" Bai mentions: Should we spend more or less on the military? In the 2000 election, Bush proposed military spending of $50 billion over baseline, whereas Gore proposed $100 billion over baseline. So voters were presented with a concrete choice. Want higher military spending? Vote for Gore. Want lower military spending? Vote for Bush.

Only one problem: Bush was lying. That's not just my conclusion. Supporters of higher military spending who voted for Bush did not merely suspect that Bush was lying--they were counting on it.

Matt Bai doesn't discuss how lying fits into the Republican communication strategy. As I see it, it's a way to avoid having to make arguments for their positions. The primary argument against higher defense spending is that the money has to come from somewhere. By rather transparently lying about how much he was planning to spend on defense, Bush was able to satisfy the proponents of higher defense spending while avoiding a real debate about the impact this would have on the federal budget.

When Bai looks at the Democratic alternatives, he asks, "Who out there wants to make the case against prosperity and a better future?" Well, put like that, no one does--just as no one would make the case for a weaker national defense.

In 2002, Bush explained that his tax cut was structured to reduce its economic benefits:

We got the tax cut passed. But because of the rules of the Senate -- and this one's a hard one to explain; it's a hard one to explain in South Dakota and it's a hard one to explain in Crawford, Texas -- but because of the rules of the Senate, that tax relief plan we passed goes away in ten years, nine years from now. And that creates uncertainty in the economy. It's hard to plan when the tax code shifts around. It's hard to -- it's hard to envision a future that's stable. And people need a stable environment in order to create jobs. For the sake of economic vitality, for the sake of job creation I need people in the Senate who will make the tax cuts permanent, a permanent part of our tax code.

Bush finds it "hard to explain" why he supported a tax package that "creates uncertainty in the economy," thereby discouraging job creation and economic vitality. That's understandable, and explains why Bush doesn't argue against prosperity and a better future. That doesn't mean that there is nothing to debate; it means that the debate won't take place if Bush can avoid it.


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