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Saturday, May 11 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: GOP's 'Batman' says victory is a matter of attention to semantics

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    Robert Price

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor

The Republican Party's self-flagellation tour, entering its sixth month, came through Bakersfield last week. The campaign's missteps were dutifully enumerated one by one, but when the guest of honor offered a solution, boy, could you hear the slapping of palms to foreheads.

Turns out the party shouldn't have been fighting for the middle class after all. Shouldn't have been championing the virtues of capitalism, either, as everyone had understandably assumed. Republicans should have been standing up for hardworking taxpayers and praising the righteousness of free enterprise.

If the differences between those terms are lost on you, take it up with Frank Luntz. He's making a lot of money these days reminding everyone that it's not the product, it's the way you sell the product. And the GOP did a lousy job of selling its product last year.

Luntz is a celebrity pollster, political strategist and message-shaper who appears regularly on Fox News. He has been just about everywhere else, too, including CNN and MSNBC. And although he's currently the darling of conservative punditry, no less a light than Jon Stewart has dubbed him "Republican Batman." MSNBC's Chris Matthews, that liberal champion of hyperbole, called Luntz "a freaking genius."

That was pretty much the consensus Thursday night, too, when, at a private home in Bakersfield, Luntz headlined a fundraiser for Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government -- a name Luntz declared he'd change pronto. He likes words like "imagine" and suggested the Sustainable guys try to work it in there somehow. (That's not happening.)

Luntz is all about words and their meanings. Not their literal meanings, but the shades of perception those words may invite. Ordinary voters have little sympathy for rich people who must pay the "estate tax." But a "death tax"? That's a different story. (Credit Luntz for that coinage.) You say you're in favor of "smaller government"? Hey, Americans don't do anything small. But "more effective and efficient government"? Nobody opposes that. Infuse the message with semantic gems such as these and you've got a GOP even the faculty at Berkeley would have to re-evaluate.

This has all been done before, of course. S.I. Hayakawa, the U.S. senator from California (1976-83) who was famous for falling asleep on the Senate floor and wearing a beret, back when Republicans could wear berets, literally wrote the book on semantics: "Language in Thought and Action." What would Hayakawa think of Luntz's message, I asked Gerry Haslam, the prolific essayist and Oildale native who wrote an excellent bio of the man in 2011.

"I think Hayakawa would say Luntz appears to be a savvy semanticist, since he substitutes 'snarl words' for 'purr words,' and vice versa, to the advantage of his cause," Haslam wrote in an email. "Of course, referential reality remains unchanged, but how people react to referential reality is apt to be much altered by skillful -- if frequently misleading -- word choices."

For all his contributions to a Republican resurgence, though, Luntz recently missed a great opportunity to stir the pot of positive change. He was surreptitiously taped at a University of Pennsylvania speech in April divulging what he thought was "killing" the GOP's message. He said right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin "get great ratings, and they drive the message, and it's really problematic. And this is not on the Democratic side. It's only on the Republican side."

When Luntz, who'd asked that his comments be off the record, saw them in Mother Jones magazine, he promptly yanked an annual scholarship he'd been giving to Penn, his alma mater.

How much better off would the Republican Party be if Luntz had stood by his comments about talk radio? What if he'd called it what it is? -- a liability. But Luntz would rather rewrite talking points than influence a party that's actually paying attention to him. "Conviction" -- that's a word he might want to explore.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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