Masters of message

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Rick Horowitz
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Here’s how good they are at spinning: They think they can convince you that spinning has nothing to do with it.

I’m talking about the Republicans—the big winners in last week’s Blowout at the Ballot Box, and as gracious in victory as you’d imagine they’d be. (Those “Surrender, Barack!” puffs in the sky? Just rumors.)

Actually, in one particular way, they’ve been more gracious in victory than you’d imagine they’d be. When it comes to taking credit for tilting the pre-election playing field so smoothly in their direction, the GOP is the very picture of modesty.

“Shucks—we didn’t do nothin’.”

Not true, of course. Not even close to true.

But that’s the special skill of the really high-end spinners: to make the spin-ees and everyone else believe they haven’t been spun at all!

“Obama and the Democrats keep saying it was their message that failed,” the Republicans keep saying. “It wasn’t about their message—it was about their policies! It was their policies that the voters repudiated.”

Absolutely: It was the Democrats’ policies that the voters repudiated—once they were defined by the messaging. The framing. The packaging. Packaging designed to do maximum damage.

Say—just for instance—you’re getting on in years, and you’ve got some thoughts about how you’d like your final days to be handled, whenever that time comes. You’d feel ever so much better knowing that your doctor is aware of your desires and will make sure that your wishes are respected and not ignored.

Perhaps you could have a little chat with your doctor about all this; it would certainly set your mind at ease. And maybe your insurance policy could even cover the cost of that visit; it all sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it?

Until you call those conversations “death panels.”


That was packaging, Republican packaging, courtesy of a certain former governor of Alaska—and the two most consequential words of the past two years. They sent an electric charge right into the nerve endings of worried seniors, who threw congressional Democrats on the defensive, which slowed the health-care-reform process by months, which meant even less immediate attention paid to jobs and the economy, which meant even more people worrying, which meant…

World-class packaging, that one. A Hall of Fame frame.

But hardly the only one. What about “job-killing tax hikes”? (As opposed, say, to “temporary tax cuts expiring when the law says they’re supposed to expire”?) What about “Wall Street bailouts” and “the failed stimulus plan”? (As opposed, say, to “preventing the imminent collapse of the entire economic system,” and “trying to get some money into people’s pockets”?)

And how about the “career politicians”—you could just as accurately call them “lifelong public servants”—who were responsible for these all these “failures”? Not to mention the “citizen legislators”—“amateurs”? “know-nothings”? “dabblers”? “dilettantes”?—so eager to grab their jobs.

Policies matter. But so do the words used to describe them. Or do you think that Newt Gingrich was merely blowing smoke in his famous GOPAC memo of the mid-’90s?

That was where Newt helpfully provided Republican candidates and office-holders with the “Optimistic positive governing” vocabulary to use when describing their own ideas (e.g. “opportunity,” “empowerment,” “common sense,” “strength”) and the “Contrasting” words they should use about their opponents (e.g. “pathetic,” “coercion,” “red tape,” “betray.”)

The title of that famous—or you could say “infamous”—memo? “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”

And with rare exceptions, the Republicans have controlled the language, and won the messaging wars, ever since. In fact, they’ve gotten so good at it that now they’d rather you didn’t notice.

So when they say “It’s not about the message”?

That’s just another part of the message.

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.

Last updated: 3:38 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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