The Washington Post

When it's all about words

Republicans from Mitch McConnell to Marco Rubio and more have settled on “divisiveness” as one of Obama’s greatest sins. Why? Paul Waldman theorizes that it’s projection: the Senate Minority Leader who says that his number one priority is defeating Obama conflates that into thinking that it’s Obama who is divisive.

Interesting, but I suspect something else is going on here: Luntzism.

The hallmark of Republicans in the Frank Luntz era has been to find words that test well and embrace them, and find words that test badly and tar the opposition with them. Not concepts, not ideas, and certainly not policies. Words. So Republicans say they are all for “patient-centered” health care, but they’re against the “divisive” Barack Obama.

Now, granted, I can’t prove this is why Republicans are pushing divisiveness, but it certainly fits with their overall approach against Obama. The problem for Republicans is that Luntz is selling snake oil. There’s no real evidence that this kind of manipulation actually translates into votes down the line.

For those who are looking for a more complex theory about how campaign messages are developed, this may seem like a simplistic explanation. But we have plenty of evidence that a lot of campaign themes are developed exactly this way — by throwing words at a focus group or polling sample to see what sticks.

In Romney’s case, this very much goes with what Greg describes as the “just trust me” campaign by Romney and Republicans in general. If you believe that campaigns are really just about finding words that move the dial and not about developing real policy options that drive voter decision-making, then you wind up with exactly that kind of campaign, in which actual policy preferences remain a mystery. Reducing political campaigns to a series of buzz words entirely divorced from policy certainly would seem to be destructive of proper representation and accountability. So perhaps the real problem here is for democracy.


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