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Spin At All Costs

The pernicious comedy of Frank Luntz.

Last week, Republican pollster Frank Luntz offered himself up as a punch line in a segment for “The Daily Show.” The somewhat convoluted premise of the sketch was that the show’s correspondent, Samantha Bee, was helping a security consultant track down his stolen guns. For her search team, Bee assembled an ex-con, a former loan shark, and Luntz. At one point, as the three questioned the consultant’s cleaning staff, the ex-shylock threatened to break their bones unless they confessed. “No no no no no,” interjected Luntz. “I am very uncomfortable about you saying we’re going to break their bones. Please, call it, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’”

Luntz has slowly evolved into a fully self-aware comic figure—a kind of right-wing, establishmentarian Abbie Hoffman, exposing the moral vacuity of politics by openly conceding the total subordination of fact to spin. Yet here is the odd thing about the man: As he has developed a burgeoning career as a parody of a political consultant, he has remained an actual working political consultant, crafting messages on behalf of politicians who are not ironically self-aware and would very much like their statements to be taken seriously.

Earlier this year, Luntz penned a memo advising Republicans on how to frame their opposition to financial reform. This is the sort of problem for which Luntz is perhaps uniquely suited. Proposals to crack down on Wall Street, such as those put forward by Democrats, are popular. Luntz approached the dilemma by proposing, characteristically, to invert the truth. He advised Republicans to label financial reform as a “Big Bank Bailout bill.”

In this telling, financial reform constitutes a massive subsidy to Wall Street, opposed by brave Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell closely echoed Luntz’s memo in a floor speech opposing reform, which he claimed would extend “endless protection for the biggest banks on Wall Street.” House Minority Leader John Boehner
chimed in, “Just whose side is President Obama on?”—probably the first time the perma-tanned K Street ally had echoed the famed union anthem.

The fully postmodern character of this argument can best be understood by recalling the broader context in which it has taken place. Before Luntz’s memo, nobody had thought to question the basic fact that Wall Street considered the Democratic regulatory reforms an intrusion rather than a subsidy. Like the contention that, say, the Colts and the Saints were competing rather than colluding during the 2010 Super Bowl, it was more of an assumption universally embedded in the coverage of the events, rather than a point anybody bothered to specifically establish.

Still, a brief survey of older news stories provides a satisfactory refutation of the Dada claims made by Luntz’s clients. “Mr. Obama’s fight with Wall Street began last year with his proposals for greater oversight of compensation and a consumer financial protection commission,” reported The New York Times, “[a]nd it reached a new level in his calls for policies Wall Street finds even more infuriating: a ‘financial crisis responsibility’ tax aimed only at the biggest banks, and a restriction on ‘proprietary trading’ that banks do with their own money for their own profit.”

A February Wall Street Journal news story likewise reported, “In discussions with Wall Street executives, Republicans are striving to make the case that they are banks’ best hope of preventing President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats from cracking down on Wall Street.” Now, without having altered their position in the slightest, they are making the precise opposite case to the public.

Luntz burst onto the scene as a pollster for Pat Buchanan and then Ross Perot in 1992, before attaching himself to Newt Gingrich, where he rode the 1994 Republican wave, helping construct the Contract With America. Luntz’s most deeply held belief was an aversion to neckware. “I will not wear a suit and tie,” he boasted, and repeatedly urged his fellow partisans to follow his lead. (“[T]oo many of us are seen as suit-and-tie Republicans trying to represent a jeans-and-T-shirt electorate”; “Take off your tie, get into comfortable clothes”; and so on.)

He presented his anti-tie stance as a symbol of his unique bond with the electorate. “I don’t act like a conservative in my dress or the way I speak,” he said, “I don’t have the half-a-million dollar beach house, even though I could.” The charm of the populist lifestyle, or at least its publicity value, eventually wore thin. Luntz subsequently moved into a McLean, Virginia, mansion that society reporters described as “palatial.” In 2008, he sold it for a home in Santa Monica near, yes, the beach. In many of his recent public appearances, including on his latest book cover, he sports a tie.

His most famous memo came out in 1995, after the Republicans had won control of Congress. It featured Luntz’s now-familiar clear-eyed diagnosis
that the public opposed the GOP’s policies, alongside a blunt recommendation that the party work around this problem through deceit.

Luntz’s memo addressed the GOP’s goal of balancing the budget, which it had promised in his Contract With America. “The public has very limited information, their priorities are often in conflict, and nearly all government programs continue to have some constituencies,” he wrote. People did not understand that balancing the budget without raising taxes would require cutting highly popular programs: “[T]he public believes overwhelmingly that the budget can be balanced just by cutting out the waste, fraud and abuse—and they expect you to find and eliminate it.” The solution, he wrote, was to promise “any ‘truly important’ program will be maintained even while entire departments are being eliminated.” In short, lie.

A 2002 memo advised Republicans on how to assuage public concerns over the environment without resorting to actual environmental protection. Addressing the question of whether carbon emissions were actually causing the atmospheric temperature to rise, he concluded, “the scientific debate [against us] is closing but not yet closed”—the consummate statement of a man who has no faith in the position he’s defending.
It is the sort of statement a villain would utter in a Hollywood lefty’s ham-fisted political satire. But Luntz’s work is impossible to distinguish from political satire. He approaches his craft as performance art—the more absurd the position he defends, the greater the professional glory. In the financial reform fight, there is a lot of glory to be had.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.