Frame Up? Dems, Dean Hit in Message War


June 18, 2005 — -- Republicans showered scorn upon Howard Dean when he said in recent weeks that the GOP is "pretty much a white Christian party," that many of its leaders "never made an honest living," and that a key Republican "is corrupt" and should "start serving his jail sentence."

Some Democrats publicly disavowed the remarks by Dean, their own party chairman.

But Dean did not back down.

"We need to be blunt and clear about the things that we're going to fight for," he told Iowa Democratic leaders Saturday, according to The Des Moines Register. "People have criticized me for being blunt. I do that on purpose. I am tired of lying down."

So is it a strategy?

If so, it's misguided, said analysts contacted by -- unless it's part of a Republican strategy.

"The Republicans are attacking Howard Dean more than Howard Dean is attacking Republicans -- but the way the stories are being handled in the news media, everybody is assuming the opposite," said Anthony Pratkanis, co-author of "Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion" and a psychology professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Experts on propaganda and political branding declared Republicans the winners of the dust-up over Dean's comments, calling Dean's attacks imprecise, poorly targeted and open to mischaracterization (Dean was forced to clarify several remarks once they were reported).

The result is little surprise to George Lakoff, a linguistics and cognitive science professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who said "the Republican message machine" has been far more effective than Democrats in recent years at framing the opposing party through disciplined message management, repetition of phrases and other techniques. Democrats, he said, can't currently match the GOP's level of organization.

"The reason for this [Dean flap] is that you have Republican media people putting this stuff out -- combing through the speeches, taking out a quote and taking them out of context," said Lakoff, a self-styled "progressive" Democrat who was in the audience for Dean's "honest living" remark and feels it was mischaracterized in the media.

Whether the Dean controversy was fueled by Republicans framing Dean's comments or by the comments themselves, the attention paid to it may have revived a media portrayal of Dean as a loose cannon, at a time of falling poll numbers for President Bush and the Republican agenda.

In other words, Pratkanis said, just as they stumbled, Republicans may have pitched a psychological message to future voters that, "We're all that keeps you from Howard Dean."

Dean's recent remarks seemingly elaborated on his quip earlier this year that, "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for."

In late May, Dean said embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, "ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence." DeLay has faced questions and investigations over campaign finance matters, but has not been accused of a crime.

Then, in a June 2 speech to a Washington conference sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future, Dean suggested Republican leaders could not identify with the common working-class voter.

"You have to wait on line for eight hours to cast your ballot in Florida," he said. "There's something the matter with that. And Republicans, I guess, can do that because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives."

That week, a storm erupted around the man already derided -- some have said unjustly -- for his campaign trail "scream" after the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses.

"He's ranting and raving about Republicans not having held real jobs," Tony Fabrizio, a Republican strategist, told USA Today. "It's hatred, hatred and more hatred."

"Watching a Howard Dean speech is a little like people who go to a NASCAR race to see a crash," Ed Gillespie, a former Republican Party chairman, told the same reporter.

Tracey Schmidt, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, said the comment, "makes it clear that Dean's priority is to generate mudslinging headlines rather than engage in substantive debate."

Even fellow Democrats lashed out.

"He doesn't speak for me, with that kind of rhetoric," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said June 5 on ABC News' "This Week." "And I don't think he speaks for a majority of Democrats. I wish that rhetoric would change."

However, a new Dean lightning bolt came the very next day.

"The Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people," he told a political forum. "They're a pretty monolithic party. They pretty much, they all behave the same and they all look the same. And they all, you know, it's pretty much a white Christian party."

Republicans seemed to crow openly as the controversy crested.

"I think he's probably helped us more than he has them," Vice President Dick Cheney said in an interview on the Fox News Channel show "Hannity & Colmes" taped June 10, in which he also called Dean "over the top."

On the other hand, New York Post columnist John Podhoretz wrote June 14 that "it's not quite clear Republicans should be gleeful." The volatile Dean, he speculated, might be just the person to keep the most partisan, angry Democrats fired up for coming election cycles. Plus, he could prove valuable to moderate Democrats who scold him, "by defining the outer limit of his party."

"By talking crazy, he makes everybody else seem sane," Podhoretz wrote.

But such a strategy might target too few voters, said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Art of Political Warfare."

"You could argue that he's trying to … keep the Democratic base energized," Pitney said. "That's strategy, but not necessarily a winning one. In 2004, the Democratic Party got about as energized as they could and they lost. If they want to win, they've got to pick up some Republican votes, and Howard Dean's comments are not a good way to do that."

For one thing, Dean seemed to target Republicans generally with some of his comments, rather than focusing his fire on specific issues or individuals -- as Republicans did to the Democrats by attacking Dean.

"He says, I hate the Republicans, without making a distinction," Pitney said. To ordinary Republicans, "the obvious conclusion is, Howard Dean hates me. That's not a good way to build support."

Some said Dean may have goofed further by, as Pitney said, "choosing his words carelessly" -- leaving them too open to misinterpretation.

"Here's a man who said, A: he hates Republicans and everything they stand for, [and B:], Republicans are white Christians," ABC News political analyst George Will said on "This Week" on June 12. "It's almost a syllogism that Dean, therefore, hates white Christians. Now, he doesn't, but that's just the nature of the man. … He's impatient, and he's angry, and he's carrying on."

In fact, Democrats have sought to target the white Christian demographic for political conversion, perhaps by reframing "moral values" against care for the poor and issues where Democrats are strong. In an interview with National Public Radio broadcast June 3, Dean himself said, "We'd like to get some evangelical Christians and we'd like a big chunk of the Catholic vote back. … Our values, I think, are more in sync with most evangelicals than the president's values."

Still, though Dean may have misstepped in the message war this time, it might not matter in the long run.

"The key time period is the mid-term in 2006," Pitney said. "If Dean is still talking like this a year from now, then the Democrats are going to have some real problems. … If he minds his tongue starting today, then the whole issue recedes."