Words That Don't Work

Democrats can use their newly-won mandate to settle some old scores...or they can get responsibly and move. They would be wise to opt for the latter.
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I am not in the habit of offering partisan linguistic advice to Democrats. But in the genuine spirit of bipartisanship - seriously - I thought this is the perfect time to convey a simple point to the still-euphoric faces of Democrat activists ...

Don't twist the knife.

Let's briefly sketch the political landscape in America today. Republicans are still reeling quite deservedly from the political thumping they took in the November election.

The polls, pretty bad then, have gotten even worse. One-by-one, key Republicans on the Hill are parting ways with the President over the 'surge' and his 'new strategy' in Iraq. And to top it all off, a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken immediately after the President's speech showed that a mere 40% of Americans believe the war is worth fighting, up just four points from before the speech.

An emerging new majority has spoken, and it is not happy with the old politics.

The Republicans are a party in peril, but all is not milk and cookies in Democrat land. The Democrats - flush with majority status - have a crucial choice right now. They can use their newly-won mandate to settle some old scores...or they can get responsibly and move ahead. They would be wise to opt for the latter.

Democracy is at its best when its practioners use language to unite and explain rather than divide and attack. The blogs from the Left and the Right be damned, the real center of America is upset but not bitter, anxious but not fearful, restless but not unforgiving.

For two years the Republican Party was adrift in meaningless messaging to support meaningless reform - and have communicated absolutely nothing for the past three months. By comparison, the Democrat majority that took Congress in November was remarkably disciplined and effective in promoting change, reform, and accountability in the weeks following their historic election.

But alas, power does strange things to Democrats: put a gavel in their hands and a camera in their face and they revert to the name-calling that kept them from the majority for a dozen long years. Sure, it's easy to land rhetorical jabs on a staggering opponent - but that doesn't make it effective. The message from the electorate in November was 'work together and compromise.' You need only look at the incumbent governor of California who won a lopsided landslide in an otherwise Democratic sweep. Cooperation works. Compromise wins. But over-heated rhetoric says to the world that you are no different - and no better - than what you replaced.

Senator Barbara Boxer can't really believe that a single woman without children is totally incapable of feeling emotional loss just because she hasn't had any children in combat, can she? Yet that's exactly what she said to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Boxer could have been a constructive opponent. Instead, she chose to poke Rice straight in the eye with a stick sharpened by a crude personal attack. It was a cheap shot that made even the most hardened Washington insiders cringe.

Similarly, Senator Barack Obama's assertion that "We're not going to babysit a civil war" is itself a childish sound-bite that ignores widespread American concern that a civil war today could spin into a regional war with worldwide consequences tomorrow. The image of "babysitting" lacks the seriousness befitting a conflict in which we've lost 3,000 American men and women, and shows a lack of gravitas in a presidential aspirant.

The list goes on. Speaker Pelosi callously suggesting that President Bush is moving quickly to "put troops in harms way" is a short jump away from suggesting that the President is deliberately trying to get our soldiers killed. Likewise, Senator Kennedy saying that U.S. troops are like "police officers in a shooting gallery" smacks of sound-bite flippancy and expediency of the worst kind. We need an intelligent debate, not a sound-bite contest.

If Democrats believe so passionately that President Bush has made it wrong - and you can't really blame them - why don't they tell us how to make it right? It's as simple as that. And getting it right might actually save some lives and political careers in the effort.

Don't get me wrong, it is fun to twist the knife. Sometimes victory is just not enough. Like when the Yankees beat the Red Sox ... Penn beats Princeton ... George Bush beats Al Gore (sort of). I am in no position to preach. I know the satisfaction that comes from delivering that decisive verbal blow.

But at the end of the day, people will recognize petty vindictiveness for what it is. And in my experience creating the phrases that so many of you readers hate with such a passion, all vindictiveness will ever get you is a pretty nasty black eye in return.

Frank Luntz is the author of the new book "Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear" (Hyperion).

UPDATE: I have read your comments eagerly. I am both educated and amused. Let me make two points:

First, I get your intensity. I hear it in focus groups and in discussions every day. The people who read this blog are mad, and I understand why.

But for those of you who criticize my use of words -- which are all of you -- consider the words you yourself use. Go back and read so many of the postings. If you wouldn't say it to your own nine-year-old child, you shouldn't write it here -- because kids that age do read and do use the computer.

And don't condemn the ugliness of the GOP message machine when the words you use are far, far uglier than anything I have ever written.

Second, you would have taken control of Congress way back in 1996 if you had offered an alternative to the GOP Medicare reform instead of just attacking.

You would have won in 1998 if you had focused on economy prosperity instead of just attacking Newt.

You would have won in 2002 if you had focused on a plan to punish Enron end corporate corruption instead of just attacking.

You would have won in 2004 if you had spent more time talking about the root cause of unemployment in Ohio instead of just attacking Bush on the war.

Attacking makes you feel better, but without at least some positive, alternative approach, it doesn't win elections. John Edwards and Barack Obama are doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire because they offer a hopeful vision, not just the negative. Hillary is not because she doesn't. --Frank

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