Patrick Hynes

“Dean, former governor of neighboring Vermont and a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, said Romney has ‘changed his position two or three times on fundamental issues, like a woman's right to make up her own mind on her health care; fundamental issues like whether we respect all citizens or only some of them.’”

Howard Dean’s shopworn line is an example of what Democrats today call “framing.”  Forget for a moment that Dean’s frame is nearly incomprehensible.  Framing is supposed to revolutionize Democrat political communication. And forget that Democrats have tried to make abortion a healthcare issue, as opposed to a moral issue, for decades.  Framing is supposed to be something new.  If you listen to the adherents of framing and its admirers in the pundit class, framing is the final key to unlocking the door to the long-promised Democrat majority. 

Well, not really.  Chairman Dean’s jumbled utterances are real-time proof political communication should be left to experts, not those whose idea of effective outreach includes shouting over the next guy. (If you’re still confused, Dean was “framing” abortion and gay marriage.)

So what is framing?  Well, it’s what we used to call “spin.”  But it’s more, too.  It’s the putative brainchild of Berkeley linguist George Lakoff.  Lakoff’s theory, spelled out in his bestselling book Don’t Think of an Elephant, is that Americans perceive words, metaphors, and ideas through innate filters that cause them either to accept or reject political communication based on what they already accept to be true or false.  Lakoff and his growing league of disciples – which includes Dean and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, among others – believe if Democrats can just learn to frame key issues in the right language, they’ll never have to live through another 2004.

Lakoff’s theory is hardly revolutionary, however.  Indeed, it’s really more of a tautology than a theory.  It is self-evident that people process information through pre-existing paradigms and prejudices.  Moreover, Democrats have couched their ideas in favorable language for decades.  President Bill Clinton, for example, was a master at getting folks to see the world as he wanted them to see it.  Of course, Clinton’s communications skills set a high bar.  But that doesn’t mean other Democrats haven’t tried to frame the public debate.  Does anyone believe Al Gore’s “risky scheme” and John Kerry’s “Stronger at home, respected abroad” were anything other than market-tested slogans?

Patrick Hynes

Patrick Hynes is the president of New Media Strategics, a blog relations consultancy. He is the proprietor of Ankle Biting Pundits and the author of In Defense of the Religious Right (Nelson Current).

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