Luntz’s Occupy memo in Maine

Crafted messages to Republican Governors and what was missed

Recently Frank Luntz, a prominent provider of political language who uses focus groups to craft persuasive words and phrases, talked to the Republican Governor’s Association.  With a number of governors worried about popular support for Occupy groups, Luntz gave the Republican governors ten pieces of advice plus one bonus point

People Before Politics (PBP), Maine Governor LePage’s personal political organization, voiced one of the memo’s messages.

Luntz advised the Governors to tell Occupiers:

You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it’s the policies over the last few years that have created this problem.

And here’s Mr. Savage, the head of PBP, regarding Occupy Augusta:

If these protestors were truly concerned about our struggling economy, wealth inequality and corporate greed as they claim, they would be much better off setting up camp at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. or reflecting on years of failed policy that has caused economic harm for the working class in Maine. 

(in another communication, an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News, Savage continues to blame Democrats, but with a Maine-centric approach. More on this at the end of this post.)

But Mr. Savage also seems to have veered off the memo, adding unfortunate elements that have shown up in Maine politics lately but fly in the face of Maine’s political culture of mutual respect and open debate. 

(Update: After this was posted, an advisor to the group told me that they developed their message independently; thus it is not surprising that their messaging is somewhat different from what Luntz suggested.)

By claiming that what the protestors really are after is “undermin[ing] a Govenor, PBP discounts these individuals’ own words and implies that somehow it would be inappropriate for citizens to disagree with an elected official.

By suggesting that leaders of some political groups should “cut the strings,” PBP suggests that the protestors don’t have their own ideas but are controlled like marionettes.

Similar to some of the discourse from opponents of election day registration, PBP casts people with whom they disagree as “not regular people.”

Not only were these characterizations wrong when it came to election day registration, which was retained by a 60-40 vote of the people, they are incorrect regarding those troubled by the upward redistribution of wealth. 

What’s more, the author of that memo understands it. 

Along with such advice as calling bonuses “performance pay,” labeling all government spending “waste,” never using the words “capitalism” while sprinkling “economic freedom” and “job creators” into one’s speeches, Luntz counseled the Republican governors to tell people, “I get it.” 

As Luntz knows, polls clearly demonstrate that most people are troubled by the trends in income distribution. 

And most people are concerned that, as wealth flows upward and programs providing opportunity for hard-working individuals to live good lives are slashed, it’s harder to live the American dream.

A recent proposal from Maine’s Governor would cut medical coverage to the working poor, those who get up and go to work every day but are just – barely – getting by.  

Meanwhile people see the political system as giving too much power to the wealthy, such that the most well-off have been able to get politicians to protect executives’ ability to take huge bonuses that often are not performance pay at all and to pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes than their secretaries.

In short, the mildly conspiratorial tone of People Before Politics probably won’t be effective since, whether or not they like its tactics, so many regular people agree with Occupy’s analysis.

Citizens know the issue goes far beyond what some do in parks in Augusta and Manhattan.

Wealth distribution is not about numbers on a chart or spreadsheet but rather opportunity and our economic health.

As billionarie venture capitalist Nick Hanauer wrote:

An ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of ajob creator than I ever have been or ever will be. . . If the average American family still got the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would have an astounding $13,000 in their pockets a year,” that would surely boost today’s economy.  

Less money for the middle class, as wealth is distributed upward, has real consequences.

And whatever memos teach politicians to say, more than words — however cutting or calming — are needed.

[My fellow political scientists will no doubt recognize my allusion to “Politicians Don’t Pander” by Jacobs and Shapiro, a book which coined the term “crafted talk,” to refer to poll-tested language that enables politicians to avoid responding to citizens’ policy desires, while looking responsive.]

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.