September 6, 2009

Here’s a quiz:

1)  What’s worse from a messaging perspective, “the public option” or “cap-and-trade”?

2) Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says is the benefit of passing a health care reform bill.

3)  Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.

On health care, no simple, repeated core message exists, so the whole effort is a muddle.  Obama needs to delete and reboot.  Let’s hope he does so Wednesday night.

On climate, at least we have one positive message:  clean energy jobs, jobs, jobs.  That is a key reason public support has held firm even in the face of a multimillion dollar campaign of fraud and disinformation by the fossil-fuel-funded right wing (see Yet another major poll finds “broad support” for clean energy and climate bill: “Support for the plan among independents has increased slightly” and Swing state poll finds 60% “would be more likely to vote for their senator if he or she supported the bill” and Independents support the bill 2-to-1).

Normally, however, a winning campaign has four messages, as I discussed in this post from a year ago, “Can Obama win with half a messaging strategy?“  Since team Obama got its messaging act together pretty fast after its near-fatal lameness of August 2008, I’m hopeful they will do the same after the near-fatal lameness of August 2009, since I don’t think they can deliver health security and energy security with half a message (or less).

Let me repeat what I consider to be Messaging 101, which apparently has been lost again by team Obama and progressive leaders.

As psychologist and Political Brain author Drew Westen explained in Huffington Post during the 2008 campaign:

There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of “issues” but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I’d actually put it a little differently. You need a story about yourself and a story about your opponent. And you need a counterpunch to your opponent’s stories about himself and about you. Ideally, the stories can be boiled down to a catchy slogan (”it’s the economy, stupid”) or one or two words (”compassionate conservative”) that make use of the memorable figures of speech from the 25-century-old art of persuasion, a.k.a. rhetoric (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“). Same for the counterpunch (“He was for it before he was against it.”).

The word “story” here is roughly equivalent to two other popular terms — “frame” (as George Lakoff uses the term) or “narrative.”  It is also equivalent to rhetoric’s “extended metaphor,” which I argue is the most important figure of speech in my not-yet-bestselling unpublished manuscript, Politics, Religion, and the English Language (see “How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address, 4: Extended metaphor“).

Good candidates will pound away with a strong positive extended metaphor of why you should vote for them and with an equally strong negative extended metaphor of why you should not vote for their opponents. Winning two-term candidates, like President George W. Bush, with the help of Karl Rove, will have a counter-punch to their opponent’s positive and negative extended metaphors. The counterpunches always use the same figure of speech — dramatic irony, wherein someone’s words unintentionally mean something quite different from (and often opposite to) what they intended (see “How to be as persuasive as Abe Lincoln, Part 2: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist“).

The goal is to find a powerful dramatic irony in their opponents’ words or deeds that blow up the opposition’s own extended metaphor. That always makes a great story, since it is satisfying sport for people to be hoisted with their own petard or for people to be uncovered as hypocrites.

Think Michael Dukakis in an army tank, or President Bush on the aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background, or the Swift Boat ads run against John Kerry. Dramatic irony is the key to understanding both popular culture and politics — but that is another post.

What conservatives have figured out is that since the media doesn’t really police the truth in a meaningful fashion, you can pretty much take whatever your opponent says out of context and turn that into a defining dramatic irony. Or just make stuff up entirely.

The other point of having the four stories or frames or extended metaphors is that it makes responding to attacks very easy. If you know your messages, then whenever the other side launches a phony attack, you just frame the response with one of your narratives.

Of course, if your opponent has no positive plan, which is true in both health care reform and climate change (though not entirely true on energy), then your messaging job should be easier — but only if you are willing to be very blunt about what happens if we do nothing.  In the case of global warming, of course, many people on our side have been duped by dubious polling and focus groups and dial groups into pulling their punches on the climate science message (see “Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing” and Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” — ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong”).

I won’t spend much time on health care.  Like the 99 percent of people who aren’t expert on health care reform, I have no idea what Obama’s plan is nor what it would actually do.  I do know that most people could care less about the uninsured — they just don’t want to join that group — and while people may say they want cost containment, in fact they don’t want their own costs “contained,” they only want their premiums lower.

What Obama needs to sell is health security.  I was glad to see David Axelrod repeat the word “security” in his health reform pitch on “Meet the Press” this morning.  That suggests to me they are starting to do some serious message polling.

In the next few weeks, I will lay out all four climate and clean energy stories.