When Gov. Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama's community-organizing background at last year's Republican convention, attendees lapped it up. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities," she said of her own experience, to thunderous applause. But as the great orator moves into the Oval Office, some would-be GOP leaders are appropriating Obamaesque language.
"I'm ready to lead a grass-roots revolution," declared Ohio's Ken Blackwell, a contender for chair of the Republican National Committee, at a recent debate in Washington. When asked about ways to invigorate GOP youth, candidate Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland replied, "You need to help them organize. You need to be in their neighborhoods and in their communities, speaking directly in their language on the issues that are important to them." Seeking to reinvent himself, even incumbent party chair Mike Duncan offered himself as "a candidate who will bring significant change [emphasis added] to the Republican Party." The party will choose a new leader later this month.
Conservatives have long been masters of political language. They successfully rebranded the estate tax as the "death tax" and won voters with phrases like "family values." But 2008 may have marked a turning point. "For the first time in decades, a Democratic campaign did better than a Republican campaign in the use of framing the issues using language," says George Lakoff, professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the best-selling author of "Don't Think of an Elephant."
Republican pollster and word maestro Frank Luntz agrees that Democrats were the dominant communicators this last cycle and thinks it unsurprising that members of his party might crib some phrases from across the aisle. He points out that President Reagan in 1980 sounded much like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and that President Clinton's words in 1992 were reminiscent of Reagan's 1980 optimism. Luntz believes that Republicans were the superior communicators of the 1980s and early 90s, but the longer they stayed in Washington the worse their messaging became. "I think they realize that Barack Obama is one of the great communicators of the modern era and that his message resonates across the political spectrum, and they realize that their message has not," Luntz says.
But effectively adopting language relies on political credibility. Luntz argues that politicians can't just borrow Obama's phrases about organizing communities if they aren't able to back up their words with deeds. "Each party begs, borrows and steals from others. The question is whether there is the substance and the credibility behind it. You can say anything but it may not be believable and it may not help," Luntz says.
Lakoff contends that while Republicans might ape Obama's language, they often mean something very different. When Republicans talked about grass-roots organizing in 2004, they were referring to conservative churches and evangelicals. "That is a very different notion of grass-roots organization than Obama's use," Lakoff says. "The question is, do they really have an understanding of grass-roots organizing in [Obama's] sense, and are they going to do it?"
Lakoff isn't sure, but he does know that Obama and his wordsmiths will face a new kind of challenge when they enter 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lakoff thinks that Republicans have a more sophisticated messaging and communications infrastructure—through the Republican National Committee and think tanks—to promote their agenda. Although Obama excelled at communicating during the campaign, things operate differently in the West Wing. "It's not clear that the administration as a whole will have the structure to carry out the kind of day-by-day messaging that really changes the way the country thinks," Lakoff says.
In a memo to Obama's transition team, Lakoff wrote: "Democrats have truth squads ready to respond (Media Matters, Think Progress), but merely contradicting conservatives and stating the facts is not enough when conservative frames are structuring public debate. Because such frames are realized in the brain in the form of neural circuitry, facts will commonly be ignored if they don't fit the frames. Alternative framing of public debate is necessary, and with Obama in the White House we have a serious chance to change how politics is thought about in America."
Lakoff says the stimulus package is one such opportunity to re-engineer how people think about government. It's not enough to just use words like "recovery" rather than "recession" without tying them to a central vision. By effectively framing the government's strategies as mechanisms of "protection" and "empowerment"—and by shying away from loaded words like "progressive" and "liberal"—Obama could possibly alter how people think about government.
For Republicans, Luntz thinks leaders in D.C. need to take their cues from governors like Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota or Mark Sanford in South Carolina, whom he sees as more in tune with the lives of Americans. "I see most of the leaders in Washington focused on language that doesn't resonate and doesn't communicate," Luntz says. "Republicans who get what is going on in America today will eventually get the language. Republicans that are disconnected from America will never get the right language."
And Luntz suggests Republicans spend more time looking to the future. "The Republican Party talks as through it is back in 1980," he groans. Indeed the RNC chair candidates collectively mentioned Ronald Reagan 16 times during their recent debate. That might resonate with older voters, but it doesn't bode well for winning over the Obama generation.