The War and the 2006 Vote: One View
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Congress the Iraq debate has been intense and partisan.
Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): If we break our promise and cut and run, as some would have us do, the implications could be catastrophic.
NORRIS: That's Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Last week, he helped stop two Democratic plans for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Republican stance purely political.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): They choose to tar all who disagree with an open-ended, unconditional commitment as unpatriotic, as waving the white flag of surrender. They may not have a war strategy, but they do have an election strategy.
NORRIS: In the debate over when and how to begin the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, you can hear the formation of the campaign messages that both parties will use to sway voters come November.
Republicans have cast Democrats as the cut-and-run party for their constant criticism of the president and for pushing for a speedy withdrawal.
Democrats, for their part, say the Bush administration has misused intelligence, misled the public and mishandled the ongoing war in Iraq.
The war of words is fierce, but how effective is it in winning votes? For two views on that, we're joined by Frank Luntz, Republican strategist and founder of the Luntz Research Company, and George Lakoff, a professor at UC Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute. Hello to both of you.
Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Luntz Research Company): Hello.
Mr. GEORGE LAKOFF (Rockridge Institute): Hi.
NORRIS: Now, let's begin with that phrase cut and run. The president and some members of Congress have been using it for some time now, saying the U.S. will not turn its back on Iraq. It's taken on more currency recently with Senate debate on the vote on troop withdrawal. I want to begin with you, Frank. How potent is that phrase?
Mr. LUNTZ: It's very potent, as is the phrase, no retreat and no surrender. It's potent because Americans do feel that the war has not gone as well as they expected. They do hope that the end will come soon and they are frustrated with conditions in Iraq. But by the same token, they don't want to give up. They don't want to give in. They understand that as tough as this war is, just cutting and running would make things even worse.
NORRIS: George, you've written and talked so much about framing the debate in politics. And the party that essentially frames the argument has an immediate advantage in terms of the debate. In this case, cut and run certainly connotes weakness. Is this something that's going to be very difficult for the Democrats to counter?
Mr. LAKOFF: It depends on what they do. The question is whether they'll actually be able to tell the inconvenient truth of the matter, which is that George Bush was right about something. When he said mission accomplished, it was right. A war has to do with two armies that fight over land. And that war was over three years ago when our army defeated Saddam Hussein's. At that point, occupation began. And an occupation isn't something you win. An occupation is something you just - you're there till you leave.
NORRIS: Occupation, that seems to be a key word here. Frank, just hold on just a minute. If you start to hear the Democrats use this word again and again to frame this current conflict in Iraq as an occupation instead of a war, what does that mean for the Republicans and how do they counter that?
Mr. LUNTZ: It's an interesting challenge. And even before you raise the question, I could tell by the number of times that George has said occupation, that that's going to be his focus, that that's his advice. One of the problems, I think, on both sides is that both sides actually don't listen to each other.
I spent a significant amount of my time focused on what the Democratic presidential candidates are saying and what the Democratic congressional leaders are saying. I actually get their speeches and underline it and look at the words and choice of phrases because I know that if it's coming from the leadership, then the rest of the party is going to follow.
NORRIS: George, I have to ask you about a phrase that I've heard you mention. Inconvenient truth, which also happens to be the title of a film that's presently in theaters. A film by Al Gore, former presidential candidate, quite possibly a future presidential candidate. Any coincidence?
Mr. LAKOFF: It's not a coincidence at all. Look, Al Gore is telling a truth that people didn't want to hear. It's a truth that really, really matters. And this is a vital truth that really, really matters. Nobody wants to hear that we have an occupying army. But it's true and it takes political courage to say it.
Mr. LUNTZ: And by the way, what he's trying to do, and what listeners need to understand is he figures, and to some degree's he's correct, that if he repeats the word occupation enough times, that will change the public's perception. And so you see the discipline that has.
NORRIS: Is it possible, I have to jump in here though, Frank. Is it possible that maybe George has taken that lesson from the Republicans because that does seem to be something that the Republicans have used to great affect is to -
Mr. LUNTZ: Republicans have been on message but not to the point of throwing in the same word in virtually every sentence of every response in this interview.
Mr. LAKOFF: Think of the words war on terror. When you have heard occupation as many times as you have heard war on terror, the country will understand a truth.
Mr. LUNTZ: Because the American people believe that we do have a war on terror because the terrorists have declared war on us.
NORRIS: You know what, we could go on, and I look forward to actually bringing both of you back to continue this debate. But I actually have an inconvenient truth and that is that we are out of time. So we'll have to say good bye to both of you. Thanks so much. It's been great talking to you.
Mr. LUNTZ: Same here. It's been a pleasure to be here.
Mr. LAKOFF: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Frank Luntz. He's a Republican strategist and founder of the Luntz Research Companies. And George Lakoff is a professor at UC Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.
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