WASHINGTON -- --
House Democrats, seeking to take the offensive against Republicans
in an effort to win back a majority, will talk Tuesday with a Berkeley scholar
who says Republicans have succeeded by framing the nation's political debate
on their terms.
The scholar, UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive sciences
George Lakoff, is a hot item in liberal circles these days as he argues
Democrats must develop a message that resonates more deeply with voters. His
latest book, "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the
Debate,'' is on best-seller lists in Washington and the Bay Area. Before the
Nov. 2 election, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and
Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who heads the House Democratic Policy
Committee, distributed hundreds of copies of Lakoff's book to their colleagues
"It's all about words and craftsmanship,'' said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel,
of Lakoff's advice. "He shows us that we ought to take the Republicans' words
and show why they don't work, why they just aren't so.''
Farr points as examples to President Bush's Leave No Child Behind Act,
the education law that Democrats say has shortchanged many children, and
Bush's calls for "tax reform,'' which the Democrats say is another plan to
help the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
Lakoff says that over the past three decades conservatives have built a
powerful message machine in Washington and the Democrats are long overdue to
"It's very elaborate, very clever,'' he said of the GOP effort, which
helped the Republicans win a majority in the House a decade ago.
Lakoff describes how well-financed think tanks such as the Heritage
Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute churn out ideas and go out of
their way to make experts available for print and broadcast reporters, talk
show hosts and op-ed pages. Then Republican officeholders and candidates stick
to the party's message and effectively use the same words to drive home their
message. They talk of moral values, Bush's "compassionate conservatism,''
"protecting the unborn,'' "partial-birth abortion'' and "death tax,'' and
drive Democrats to distraction by constantly referring to the "Democrat Party,
'' instead of the "Democratic Party.''
The result, Lakoff says, is that Democrats and liberals often find
themselves on the periphery of the public policy debate. While they have begun
to respond, creating in the past year the Center for American Progress, a
think tank, and the liberal talk radio network, Air America, headlined by Al
Franken, the Democrats have barely tapped the need to retool. Lakoff will take
this message to House Democrats on Tuesday during a daylong issues forum.
"A long-term commitment is needed," Lakoff said, "but a lot of short-term
things can be done.
"The Democrats need to be clear about their messages and to find a common
vision, express it well and stick to it,'' said the professor. Lakoff helped
create the Rockridge Institute, a Berkeley-based think tank that in its own
words seeks to "reframe the terms of political debate to make a progressive
moral vision more persuasive and influential.''
During the 2004 campaign, Lakoff suggested that instead of talking about
how Bush had run up the national debt, Democrats should label it a "baby tax''
the Republican president had imposed on future generations.
He has suggested that same-sex marriage should be referred to as "the
right to marry.'' Trial lawyers like vice presidential nominee John Edwards
should instead be called "public protection attorneys,'' and the term
environmental protection, which brings to mind big government and reams of
regulations, should instead be termed "poison-free communities.''
Although Tuesday will mark the first time Lakoff has appeared before
Democrats as a group, on Capitol Hill, he has already found a receptive
audience. Among them is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
In the 2004 campaign, her first as party leader, Pelosi stressed the need for
a unified party message. She created the New Partnership for America's Future,
a platform organized around six ''core values'' that all factions of the party
could rally around. Still, the Democrats lost seats in House races last month
as well as in the Senate, and Bush won re-election.
"The recent election caused Democrats to rethink how they communicate to
voters. It's useful to hear his insights,'' said one Democratic House aide who
asked not to be identified. "The Republicans are so good at sticking to their
talking points and not getting into minutiae, while Democrats always want to
have a detailed debate.''
But outside analysts say the Democrats, facing a Republican in the White
House and GOP majorities in both houses of Congress, will have a hard time
finding an audience even with an improved message.
"Being in the minority means you don't control the agenda,'' said Amy
Walter, who follows the House for the Cook Political Report, a Washington
political publication. "Part of the problem of being in the minority is you
have to play defense a lot.''
She said the Democrats' best strategy, one that Pelosi already seems to
have adopted, is to capitalize on GOP missteps as they head into the 2006
midterm elections. "The Democrats have to take advantage of the opportunities
the Republicans give them,'' said Walter, "and they have to remember it takes
a while for this stuff to permeate'' the consciousness of voters.
After Lakoff's presentation, the House Democrats are scheduled Tuesday to
hear from Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment on
International Peace, about national security issues. Rep. Robert Matsui of
Sacramento and Rep. Charles Rangel of New York will talk about Bush's upcoming
proposal to partially privatize Social Security. Democrats generally scorn
such an idea.
Lakoff says Republicans -- through their elaborate think tanks that
train them to influence the media -- have learned how to speak to voters in
"You can't speak simply if people don't already have the issues you want
to raise in mind,'' he said.
© Copyright 2004 San Francisco Chronicle