I need some help from Dr. Frank Luntz. Dr. Luntz is a sought after pollster, but he is much more than that. He is a wordsmith—a man who understands the importance of placing a message in a small box and wrapping it properly(and author of WORDS THAT WORK: IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY, IT’S WHAT PEOPLE HEAR). In short, he creates language that affects people. He was responsible for changing discussion about the Estate Tax to discussion about a Death Tax. Small linguistic changes have an incredible affect on how people respond to messages.
The GOP needs rebranding. The GOP needs Dr. Luntz; but Dr. Luntz has already worked with the Republicans. The Republican problem is not the packaging. The packaging is beautiful, in part because of the work of Dr. Luntz. The Republican problem is that the contents of the package have al the relevance of a turntable. But, more importantly, “conservatism” needs rebranding and that’s where Luntz comes in.
Hope may be at hand, though, and the message may be getting out. By way of evidence, I offer Doug Hoffman. Hoffman is a self-described conservative running for Congress in New York’s 23rd District against a Republican and a Democrat. Several high profile Republicans have taken notice of Mr. Hoffman’s campaign, including Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, the latter having endorsed his candidacy. Moreover, Mr. Hoffman is getting national media attention from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck.
But this article is more about Limbaugh and Beck than Hoffman. In an October 2 Op-Ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks shared one of the most encouraging paragraphs I’ve read in a long time. Having chronicled Republican Talk Radio’s unsuccessful attempts to mobilize the GOP base to various endeavors, from supporting Fred Thompson for President to voting for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in order to “bloody Obama,” Brooks penned this about the radio hosts: theirs is the “…story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche—even in the Republican Party. It is the story as old as the ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain.”
Talk radio hosts are entertainers—and apparently very successful ones at that. These hosts attract a huge listener base (for Rush the number is as high as 4-5 million listeners a day) that advertisers are eager to reach. But their shows are about affirmation, not information. Their listeners tune in to have their own ideas validated, as opposed to looking for informative data on which to make independent decisions. The fact that they are listening doesn’t mean the audience is taking marching orders from the hosts. Brooks’s research indicated that despite the calls from the mic to mobilize in support of the host’s agenda, listeners remained idle (I’m sure Limbaugh’s sponsors were none too pleased with Brooks’s findings).
I, however, am tickled pink. The Republican Party for too long has designed their message and based their strategy on appealing to the messaging from the mic of these various hosts (also including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved and Michael Savage) assuming it to be representative of the feelings held by listeners and, thus, the party base. In fact, we now see that listeners may be more closely aligned with “orthodox” conservatives (as opposed to big government, interventionist, profligate Republicans who rule the day). The fact is that while the hosts have polarized the political discussion, they have not effectively polarized the country.
The fact is that reasonable discussion is seldom entertaining and often not affirming. Like sports-talk radio in Dallas that lives and dies by berating the hated Redskins, Republican Talk Radio profits immensely from identifying Democrats as the enemy and affirming a victim mentality in their audience.
The GOP’s first step in rebirthing itself must be to follow Hoffman’s example and untether its policy making from the strident opinions of radio celebrities. Talk radio holds less sway than audience numbers would suggest and the real base of the party–authentically conservative people—as well as America’s middle and independent voters would find greater purchase in policies more consistent with America’s core values as opposed to the extreme right positions advocated by talk radio’s versions of Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney and Susan Sarandon.
The Republicans have stolen the word “conservative”– it now being a widely accepted synonym for Republican. As an authentic conservative, I want my adjective back, but I’m smart enough to know that it’s gone forever, to be tossed on grave of the GOP like flowers from a funeral guest. So, Dr. Luntz, what words should we orthodox conservatives now use to describe where we fit on the political stage? An anxious nation needs an answer.