Monday, September 17, 2007

Messaging is the key. Framing is the car.

Frank Rich, courtesy OpenLeft: "Americans are looking for leadership, somewhere, anywhere. At least one of the Democratic presidential contenders might have shown the guts to soundly slap the 'General Betray-Us' headline on the ad placed by in The Times, if only to deflate a counterproductive distraction. This left-wing brand of juvenile name-calling is as witless as the 'Defeatocrats' and 'cut and run' McCarthyism from the right; it at once undermined the serious charges against the data in the Petraeus progress report (including those charges in the same MoveOn ad) and allowed the war's cheerleaders to hyperventilate about a sideshow. 'General Betray-Us' gave Republicans a furlough to avoid ownership of an Iraq policy that now has us supporting both sides of the Shiite-vs.-Sunni blood bath while simultaneously shutting America's doors on the millions of Iraqi refugees the blood bath has so far created."

I think I just figured out the mistake many commentators are making in concluding that the Betrayus ad was a mistake. Many of them are working from the assumption that Republicans being able to bloviate about it is important (it "...allowed the war's cheerleaders to hyperventilate about a sideshow" in the words of Mr. Rich).

Two points: (1) Republicans always find something to bloviate about. It's a central component of their entire strategy. They have perfected the art of artificial outrage. They do it because they know, as past history (and this Frank Rich column) suggests, that liberals will respond reflexively by joining in the chorus and thus giving legitimacy to the bloviation. The only thing that is different is that more and more liberal leaders are catching on to this game and not playing along. None of the three leading Democratic candidates for President have condemned the ad. That is significant.

(2) The "distraction" that so many critics worry about is fleeting. Reality has this annoying habit of forcing itself back into the conversation and pushing said distractions off the court. The awfulness that is the war in Iraq won't shut up, despite the howls from the right. The only thing that even keeps those howls competitive with reality is when liberal leaders join in. Meanwhile, even as the distraction fails to compete with the reality, the essential truth of the MoveOn ad (that Petraeus can't be trusted to give an unbiased presentation of the situation in Iraq) continues to worm itself into the core of the American psyche.

Armando, a commentator I greatly respect, makes a comparable error in his own criticism of the MoveOn ad. He thinks that George Lakoff's political instincts are crap because Lakoff thinks that ad was brilliant. But, says Armando, The right wing was able to (temporarily) change the subject. Therefore, they won!

Armando doesn't understand framing. It's not simply another word for messaging. It goes much deeper than that. Framing lays the groundwork in peoples mind so that, at a latter time, all you have to do is utter a few words (the message) in order to activate that framing.

Messaging is the key. Framing is the car.

Framing requires two things: (1) a form that buries itself deep in the mind of the framee and (2) affirmation through repetition. Sometimes, burying the frame deep requires a form that has impact. The "Betrayus" form hits hard and leaves a mark. But it will not sink in and become of significant value if is not assisted. And it will certainly fail if the response of liberals is to simply run away from it in horror. That is why Republicans hit back so hard on it. If they didn't then the frame would take root.

It is much to early to say who "won" the framing on this. Framing is an activity that can take years (decades, in the case of the right-wing's destruction of the Liberal label). But my early assessment is that it is working. The (temporary) outrage is already fading. No major Democratic leader took the bait (so far). And the public's perception of Patreaus (which, even before this, was strongly skeptical of his honesty) has another bone to chew on.

Brilliant? Perhaps. Offensive? Perhaps. Stupid? Not in the least.


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