Bill Maher, Frank Luntz, and the Limitations of Reframing Reality

At the moment, everyone is giving advice to the Democrats about how to beat the Republican spinmeisters. Even Republican spinmeisters. On the latest Real Time with Bill Maher, it was GOP language guru Frank Luntz dishing out advice to me, Paula Poundstone, and anyone else who would listen.

Frank is the supreme reality reframer who took the estate tax and turned it into the "death tax," turned school vouchers into "opportunity scholarships," and turned drilling for oil in a wildlife preserve into "responsible energy exploration."

It is Frank's contention that the reason Democrats keep losing presidential races they should win is that they are too critical, too negative, and too angry. Really? Anyone remember the '04 Democratic convention where the Kerry campaign had put the kibosh on all expressions of anger and Bush-bashing?

But is it surprising that watching your country led into a disastrous war with all the attendant damage to national security provokes anger in sentient beings?

Frank also insisted that Democrats keep losing because they only talk about what they are against, never what they are for.

"Bring the troops home, and end the war... How is that not knowing what we are for?" asked Paula.

Bill framed the question as a mystery: How can the Republicans keep electing what he evocatively called 'You fucking kidding me?' candidates:

Richard Nixon? You fucking kidding me? Ronald Reagan? You fucking kidding me? George W. Bush? You fucking kidding me?!

I don't think it's a mystery at all. I've written extensively about how the Republicans have used fear to scare their way to victory (see here, here, and here). Fear is their go-to play. Mushroom clouds as smoking guns! Terror alerts any time the poll numbers take a dip! And isn't it interesting how we have the Fort Dix arrest of the gang that couldn't jihad straight just as Bush's approval rating hits a record low? When the president warned that if we didn't fight them over there, we'd have to fight them over here, I never imagined that ground zero would be Circuit City.

Republicans have also mastered the dark art of reducing their opponents to effeminate caricatures. They have regularly succeeded in emasculating Democratic candidates. And not just any Democrats but Democrats who were actually decorated war heroes with Silver Stars and Purple Hearts.

Just imagine: George McGovern was a World War II fighter bomber pilot who flew 35 missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery under fire. And the Republicans successfully painted him as a yellow-bellied, panty-waisted pacifist-coward.

And John Kerry was transformed from a decorated Vietnam War hero who volunteered for duty into a Chablis-sipping, windsurfing, French-loving, croissant-eating wuss, while Bush, Cheney and all the rest of the Deferment Gang got to pretend they were take-no-guff-from-terrorists bad-asses.

Of course, the Democrats have often made it all too easy for the GOP to fit them into this emasculated narrative. Jimmy Carter, with his sweaters and his malaise and the in-need-of-Viagra visual of those helicopters crashing in the Iranian desert. And Michael Dukakis, well, what kind of man was he if he wouldn't want the death penalty even for the guy who theoretically raped and murdered his wife? He couldn't handle Bernie Shaw, how was he going to deal with the Soviet Union?

Since the political use -- and abuse -- of language was the recurring theme of our whole Real Time discussion, I had to bring up my favorite linguistic moment of the week: After Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' claimed that the response to the Greensburg tornado was hampered because so many National Guardsmen and their equipment are in Iraq, Tony Snow took umbrage, saying: "There's a lot of stuff available."

Stuff? Was he suggesting his brother-in-law had a tractor he was willing to loan the governor? Or maybe Snow got two power saws last Christmas, so Kansas could have one that had never been used and was still in the box.

The truth is that no matter how often the White House attempts to spin the domestic collateral damage from the war by attacking the messengers (remember how they did the same thing to Louisiana's governor after Katrina?), the facts don't lie: the Kansas National Guard is operating with only 40 to 50 percent of its equipment. And there are similar problems all over the country.

Indeed, the Government Accountability Office released a report in January concluding that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have "significantly decreased" the amount of National Guard equipment available here at home, while stateside units face an increasing number of threats.

There are currently over 25,000 National Guardsmen in Iraq, with another 13,000 slated to be deployed as part of the surge. And every guardsman who is in Iraq is one less guardsman who can help out in Kansas or with the California fires or the Missouri flooding or whatever other disasters -- or terrorist attacks -- might be coming our way.

After years of successful spinning, Frank Luntz and the Republican Party are suddenly coming face to face with the limits of reframing: Our safety and security have been severely undermined by the war in Iraq (Tony Snow's "stuff" not withstanding); and it's getting harder and harder to reframe Democrats as ineffectual eunuchs when a ballsy woman is leading the charge in Congress.

Angry? You bet. Bush and company have turned America into a collection of Howard Beales: we're mad as hell and we're not going to allow reality to be reframed anymore.

Watch the exchanges with Frank, Bill and Paula here.