Frank Luntz is that corporate and political consultant and pollster you used to see on CNN and MSNBC a lot, until they figured out he wasn’t exactly neutral – he had worked and still works for the Republican Party. All that “let’s turn to our expert” stuff became a bit of a joke. After all, his specialty is “testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.” He’s good at it, and he formed The Luntz Research Companies in 1992 – in Alexandria, Virginia, close to the Republican action.
Samantha Bee nailed him in an interview on the Daily Show – that interview opens with her commenting in voiceover that “Luntz has made a brilliant career spraying perfume on dog turds” – then she offers him a chance to tweak various words and phrases. “Drilling for Oil” becomes “Responsible Exploration for Energy.” “Logging” becomes “Healthy Forests.” “Manipulation” becomes “Explanation and Education.” Bill Maher later kidded him that he’d call “Concentration Camps” something like “Faith-Based Detention Centers.” Luntz just smiles. He actually was the one who came up with the term “Healthy Forests Initiative” for policies of the current administration that favor massively expanded logging on public lands and complete deregulation of the logging industry. It’s all in how you frame it. He was also responsible for the administration’s stance on climate change – “the jury is still out” and all that. He’s since distanced himself from that.
In 1997, he was reprimanded by the American Association for Public Opinion Research and in 2000 he was censured by the National Council on Public Polls. In a video piece, Penn and Teller ripped into him for his comment that the key to survey polling is “to ask a question in the way that you get the right answer.” All this is on record. But he’s still around.
So is Time magazine’s Joe Klein, the fellow who wrote Primary Colors, that roman à clef about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Lately Klein got into a bit of a mess himself – columnist Glenn Greenwald pointed out some whoppers, factual errors in a column Klein had written about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Time eventually published a “correction” of sorts – “In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the legislation would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t.”
Greenwald pointed out that the actual text of the Democratic legislation quite specifically does not require court review of individual targets – it’s right there in the text – and Time’s response, that their job is just reporting “what each side says” and not the facts at all, is an odd view of journalism. Greenwald thinks the facts matter.
Klein’s own response was as follows – “I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who’s right.”
So what the facts are doesn’t interest him much. The whole thing sums up most everything you need to know about journalism these days – so and so said Barack Obama was a Muslim terrorist and also secretly ran a combination donut shop and opium den in Helsinki in the early sixties and Obama says this isn’t so, but we’re just telling you what people say and won’t look into it. That’s journalism now. The details of this FISA thing are here, if you’re interested – but it’s just sad.
Klein says he greatly admires George Bush, but doesn’t like one or two of his policies. He’s quite a pip – and Time’s sole in-house “liberal.”
Okay, so let’s put them together.
Frank Luntz invited Joe Klein to a “dial-in group” watching the latest Republican debate and this is what Klein saw –
I attended Frank Luntz’s dial group of 30 undecided – or sort of undecided – Republicans in St. Petersburg, Florida, last night… and it was a fairly astonishing evening.
Now, for the uninitiated: dials are little hand-held machines that enable a focus group member to register instantaneous approval or disapproval as the watch a candidate on TV. There are limitations to the technology: all a candidate has to do is mention, say, Abraham Lincoln and the dials go off into the stratosphere. Film of soaring eagles will have the same effect. But the technology does have its uses.
Last night, for example, it was apparent from the get-go that Rudy Giuliani was having a very bad night. Mitt Romney clearly got the better of him in the opening debate about illegal immigration. Romney’s dial numbers hovered in the 60s (on a scale of 100) while Giuliani (40s) seemed defensive, members of the focus group later said… and they thought Romney seemed strong, even when defending his Sanctuary Mansion. (I mean, if you care about illegal immigrants – which I don’t understand in the first place, because I don’t – shouldn’t you check the people working your lawn and, if you have doubts, hire another company?)
In the next segment – the debate between Romney and Mike Huckabee over Huckabee’s college scholarships for the deserving children of illegal immigrants – I noticed something really distressing: When Huckabee said, “After all, these are children of God,” the dials plummeted. And that happened time and again through the evening: Any time any candidate proposed doing anything nice for anyone poor, the dials plummeted (30s). These Republicans were hard.
But there was worse to come: When John McCain started talking about torture – specifically, about waterboarding – the dials plummeted again. Lower even than for the illegal Children of God. Down to the low 20s, which, given the natural averaging of a focus group, is about as low as you can go. Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. “I don’t have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11,” said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.
Oh my. This is the base. There was the applause, and there were those dial readings.
McCain on immigration policy at the debate –
But then you’ve still got two other aspects of this issue that have to be resolved as well. And we need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God’s children as well. (APPLAUSE) And they need some protection under the law. And they need some of our love and compassion.
The hopeful Digby –
It seems to me that if you can get applause (and no boos) for a comment like that on immigration at a GOP debate then Democratic consultants should relax just a tiny bit about the breathless responses they are getting in their focus groups and tell their candidates to sound reasonable too. They aren’t going to be able to out-hate the Tancredo wing of the party so there’s no margin in helping the Republicans set the political agenda by pushing bad legislation and even worse rhetoric.
It certainly looks like the cranky old Republican creeps are once again on the rise in the GOP. But Huckabee and McCain are judged to have done well in the debates last night and those answers don’t seem to have hurt them.
Pat Buchanan ran for president partly on immigrant bashing in 1992 and he had quite a following. His speech at the Republican convention that year is infamous. The angry divisive tone of that speech was also considered to be the kiss of death for Poppy’s candidacy. Republicans should probably consider whether making Tom Tancredo happy is really in their best interest. The Democratic leadership certainly should.
But then there are those dial readings.
The McCain answer on torture also got applause from the audience –
MCCAIN: Well, Governor, I’m astonished that you haven’t found out what waterboarding is.
ROMNEY: I know what waterboarding is, Senator.
MCCAIN: Then I am astonished that you would think such a – such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our – who we are held captive and anyone could believe that that’s not torture. It’s in violation of the Geneva Convention. It’s in violation of existing law… (APPLAUSE) And, Governor, let me tell you, if we’re going to get the high ground in this world and we’re going to be the America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years. We’re not going to torture people. We’re not going to do what Pol Pot did. We’re not going to do what’s being done to Burmese monks as we speak. I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me. (APPLAUSE)
ROMNEY: Senator McCain, I appreciate your strong response, and you have the credentials upon which to make that response. I did not say and I do not say that I’m in favor of torture. I am not. I’m not going to specify the specific means of what is and what is not torture so that the people that we capture will know what things we’re able to do and what things we’re not able to do. And I get that advice from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counterterrorism in the CIA for some 35 years. I get that advice by talking to former generals in our military… and I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me, as a presidential candidate, to lay out all the issues one by one… get questioned one by one: Is this torture, is that torture? And so, that’s something which I’m going to take your and other people’s counsel on.
MCCAIN: Well, then you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions, which were for the treatment of people who were held prisoners, whether they be illegal combatants or regular prisoners of war. Because it’s clear the definition of torture. It’s in violation of laws we have passed. And again, I would hope that we would understand, my friends, that life is not “24” and Jack Bauer. Life is interrogation techniques which are humane and yet effective. And I just came back from visiting a prison in Iraq. The Army general there said that techniques under the Army Field Manual are working and working effectively, and he didn’t think they need to do anything else. My friends, this is what America is all about. This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America. (APPLAUSE)
Digby, even after reading about those dials, thinks the applause was genuine –
Now, I would be open to the idea that there might have been a large number of Democratic ringers in the audience applauding for that sort of statement except for the fact that, other than the predictable Ron Paulite responses, there was no other counterintuitive evidence but for these two questions. It’s extremely unlikely that these Democratic ringers would have remained silent except on these answers pertaining to treating “all God’s children” with kindness and compassion and abiding by the Geneva Conventions. And anyway, the applause was much too loud for it to have been done by a spattering of Democrats in the audience. I think it was a reflexive response by the decent Republicans in the audience to these candidates saying the obviously correct thing.
But she knows something else is up here, that odd, perhaps small minority –
Frank Luntz, for reasons we can only speculate about, invited Joe Klein to observe one of these (unreliable, as Klein notes) focus groups that didn’t feature any of those decent Republicans. It could easily be just the luck of the draw – there are a whole lot of them who obviously think torture is terrific and that Mexicans aren’t God’s children. It’s not unlikely that you could easily wind up with a roomful of them.
But I don’t believe that they are representative of how all Republicans really felt about Huckabee and McCain’s answers. That immediate applause is exactly how you would expect normal Americans, raised with American values, to respond to such statements. That they did it publicly at a Republican function where many of their fellows apparently think that torture and punishing children for their parents’ behavior is an American value, is a testament to their decency.
Those in that private little group of true believers are, as Klein writes, appalling.
Digby is an optimist. Luntz may be a tool, but he does his homework. The applause doesn’t matter. People go into the voting booth alone. Who knows what they’ll dial up?