The Man Comes Around

This week long-time Republican pollster Frank Luntz met with the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. He claims to have had a change of heart, is ready to help with messaging on climate change, and wants policy over politics. That last one he said without a hint of irony that the politicization of climate policies offered over the last 20 years originated from his strategies. It is almost impossible to have a meaningful debate about climate policy because the GOP refutes the facts and science thanks in large part to him, making the task that much more difficult than it otherwise might have been.

But I am happy he has had a change of heart. Even if he were not suddenly dedicated to messaging for effective climate change policy, he would be one more person on the correct side of the debate. One is still more than zero. I am a big believer in second chances and am happy we have his talents on our side. The man reads the electorate the way Ray Babbitt counts a six-deck chute. Having him on the team will be a good thing. He might even be able to re-educate some of the very anti-climate policy voters misled by his own messaging.

If you are unfamiliar with the man, you may be familiar with his work. It started in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, which I personally consider the opening salvo to what is now our entrenched political acrimony. And though Luntz did not invent the term “death tax,” he popularized it over "estate tax” and the GOP has clung to it like a security blanket. Luntz was also key to Republican resistance to the Affordable Care Act, branding it a “government takeover of healthcare.” He provided significant messaging strategies so Republicans could malign the legislation, claim to want "reform" without offering any potential solutions whatsoever, and make President Obama the bad guy for trying to fix something everybody knew was broken. This fed one of the key misperceptions Luntz wanted spread: that the ACA was “rammed down people’s throats.”

But simply excoriating Luntz for his role in our political divide does little. Therefore, before fully welcoming him to the team, I want to suggest some way to best utilize his unique set of skills.

First, be accountable for your actions.

Luntz was instrumental to the GOP’s attack on climate change advocacy at the top of the century. He advised using the less-scary sounding “climate change” instead of “global warming.” (Though this would turn out to be a more accurate term.) He also noted the electorate would come around to climate change if they believed the science was settled. Therefore, he suggested, “[Republicans] need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” The GOP and conservative media listened. So we have him to thank for today’s hoaxers, conspiracy theorists, and widespread mistrust of the definitive science behind climate change.

Now Luntz is saying climate change is a threat we must take seriously in the immediate, with "policy over politics." My response:

That is what we were saying 20 years ago while he was putting politics above policy.

But he appears sincere. His about face was inspired by the Skirball Fire in December 2017 that almost destroyed his Los Angeles residence with him inside it. If anything good came out of that tragedy, I guess this is it. Even the prodigal son needed poverty and famine before begging his father’s forgiveness.

But not so fast. A convert does not simply join the front lines of a battle many of us have been fighting for years, especially after making the fight that much more difficult. During his appearance before the committee Luntz tried to gloss over his role in the current state of affairs saying his anti-climate change work was “a lifetime ago.” No, it was not. And its effects linger to this day. Before becoming the next great climate champion, Luntz must take responsibility for his work and the harm it caused. An arson doesn’t get to pour water on the burning house without admitting to having struck the match.

Second, help us understand and re-educate the electorate.

While I appreciate Luntz’s powers might for once be used for good, it appears he still has much to learn. After his meeting with the committee he tweeted a photo of one of his famous "Words To Use & Lose" charts.

Luntz tweeted this picture after a climate change meeting with Senate Democrats

Some of this is semantics. “Jobs” vs. “Careers” is not worth quibbling over. Some other terminology, however, is. For example, during his opening statement Luntz suggested dropping the word “sustainability,” arguing it suggests the status quo. Further, he urged messaging should stress the consequences of inaction, and focus more on positive outcomes instead of negative ones. This may be key to understanding how the general public views climate change, but it underscores how much Luntz - and the public - have to learn. Many of us have said for years that the status quo is, in fact, unsustainable. And we have been sounding the alarm fervently about the consequences of inaction (e.g.: an uninhabitable planet and extinction), and how adopting more sustainable practices will lead to more positive outcomes (e.g.: we survive as a species).

Further, Luntz's photo suggests losing "one world" in favor of "working together." Perhaps he knows the electorate is more comfortable with the latter, which I can understand. "One world" tends to ring of New Age-iness, which can alienate the average citizen. Unfortunately, climate change does not care about one's comfort level with terminology. In addition, Luntz's prepared opening statement indicates that people are willing to adopt policies like a carbon tax if it leads to "a “meaningful, measurable impact” on climate change," and that other countries (especially China) also walk the walk.

Putting aside the "one world-ness" of that last part, Luntz and the electorate might benefit from a review of some measurable impacts of this topic:

In short, Mr. Luntz can definitely help us understand the electorate, but should not tell us how to dumb it down so they feel good about saving the planet for their children and grandchildren. These concepts cannot simply be tossed aside because people do not like them. If voters have been poisoned against them because of a carefully crafted messaging scheme, then I suggest Mr. Luntz use his talents to craft a strategy to bring others up to where the bar should have been all along instead of playing down to where it he helped set it.

Third, focus on the non-believers.

Another key role for Mr. Luntz is to utilize his credibility with conservative climate deniers. During his testimony Luntz indicated the general public agrees climate change is happening, it is man-made, and we must do something about it. That tells me the choir and congregation are on board, but what about the non-believers? In addition to working with Senate Democrats, I want Luntz to craft a message to go toe-to-toe with someone like Jim Inhofe, a man who once brought a snowball into the Senate chamber in winter as a “global warming hoax” gambit. I want Luntz to to take on Americans For Tax Reform and push for a carbon tax as a policy that will change consumer behavior and help against climate change. Let’s really use those powers for good.

So welcome to the team, Frank. I am glad we have you on our side. I mean that sincerely. It has been difficult enough fighting against the effects of your messaging. I believe there is still much for which you must atone and that you have a lot to learn about this subject beyond almost losing one of your residences to a fire. But you are as smart as they come, and I believe there is much you can show us about fighting this fight more successfully. Let’s get to work.