Yet, by and large, once he strayed from the broader point about the role of values, Lakoff's advice in these situations was naive. An aide to Nancy Pelosi told me, for example, that Lakoff advised Democratic House members last December to oppose Social Security privatization by emphasizing the biblical obligation to honor one's parents. On one level, it made sense to appeal to values rather than to focus on the benefit cuts that privatization would entail, which could etch the image of tax-and-spend liberalism further into voters' minds. The problem was the specific values Lakoff chose to highlight. Pollster Guy Molyneux has conducted extensive survey research on attitudes toward entitlement spending. He says that, when it comes to values, voters respond much better to arguments based on fairness--for example, that they earned their Social Security benefits by working hard and paying into the system all their lives--than to arguments based on obligations to fellow citizens. That's why, even though Social Security acts largely as a social insurance program, FDR designed it to look like a private insurance plan, in which your benefits reflect your contributions.
Likewise, on the dividend tax cut, the point Lakoff emphasized most strongly to Democrats was the importance of not calling the proposal "tax relief." "They just bought into the [frame] of the other side," he harrumphs, still incredulous. "I said, 'The alternative is taxation as some sort of investment.'" But the "tax relief" metaphor resonates not simply because Republicans have successfully framed taxes as a punitive burden. It resonates because Americans have always had a deep suspicion of the government's power to tax, dating back to the founding of the republic. "Not using the phrase doesn't make people like taxes," says one former Senate aide, who rolled his eyes at Lakoff's prescriptions. "People have never liked taxes." Lakoff responds by suggesting that U.S. history supports more than one interpretation. For every tax rebellion, there is another example of citizens working together for the common good--the barn-raising of frontier lore. But this argument doesn't explain why tax rates in the United States have historically been so much lower than in, say, Scandinavia.
Other Lakoff recommendations have been even more off-base. A second Senate aide points to another Lakoff presentation last year. During the question-and-answer session that followed, the senators began pressing Lakoff for a single turn of phrase that would capture all the values reflected in the party's many positions. Lakoff hesitated a moment, then suggested, "Come home, America." The aide's jaw dropped. "I sort of said, 'What? Come home, America? That was the theme of the McGovern campaign in 1972. I don't think that's going to work.'" (Lakoff doesn't recall the specific phrase, but says it would have been only one of several he suggested in the course of the discussion.)
In addition, it's obvious that his own views drive the strategic advice he offers:
Clearly, little of Lakoff's advice to Democrats in these situations has anything to do with the big ideas he lays out in Moral Politics, which functions on the abstract level of metaphors and moral systems, not the tactical level of sound bites and attack ads. But the Democratic politicians Lakoff advises typically want something more tangible than the basic observations that values drive voting behavior and that voters infer values from policies and rhetoric. They want specific instructions. Unfortunately, Lakoff is neither a message guru nor a pollster, as he is the first to concede. When he gives practical advice, he has no particular professional expertise to draw on; instead, he simply invokes his ideological predispositions. In these situations, Lakoff invariably recommends the kind of liberal policies and catchphrases that reflect his own nurturant worldview and that, as a result, don't often burst with electoral appeal.
The case in point is Don't Think of an Elephant!, the New York Times best-seller Lakoff wrote in five weeks last summer. In it, Lakoff argues that Republicans have spent the last 40 years embracing the values of their hardest-core supporters. They win elections because people in the political center find these values compelling absent a clear alternative from Democrats. (Lakoff believes swing voters are people who subscribe to both strict father and nurturant parent models, depending on the situation. The party that succeeds is the party whose moral system gets elevated in the minds of these voters.) "The conservatives do not move at all to the left, and yet they win!" Lakoff writes.
According to Don't Think, Democrats should embrace the nurturant parent values of their most loyal supporters the same way Republicans have embraced strict fatherhood...
One obvious flaw in this recommendation is that it presumes a majority of Americans are nurturers by, well, nature...
The bigger problem with Lakoff's advice is that it conflicts with recent history--even his own reading of it. As Lakoff explains in his books, both Clinton in 1992 and Bush in 2000 projected centrist values through their choice of rhetoric and policy. Clinton appealed to nurturers on the left by underscoring government's obligation to give everyone a shot at the good life (hence Clinton's support for education spending and national health care). But, for the strict fathers on the center-right, the message was that people had to earn that shot (hence Clinton's support for welfare reform, his tough stance on crime, and his rewards, such as college scholarships, to people who "work hard and play by the rules"). Clinton's 1992 campaign themes--hope, opportunity, responsibility--amounted to an affirmative statement of largely nurturant values that nonetheless vanquished the image of Democrats as moral relativists, permissive liberals, and effete cultural elites, everything strict fathers detest.
Likewise, in 2000, Bush invoked compassionate conservatism to appeal to both strict fathers on the right and nurturers on the center-left. For the right, there were tax cuts, the death penalty, and an end to foreign policy as social work. For the center-left, there was education spending, government-subsidized prescription drugs, immigration reform, and lots of photo-ops of Bush with black children. Bush's faith-based initiative actually appealed to both groups--to strict fathers who wanted to reduce government spending on social programs and to nurturant parents who believed in helping the poor. In a sort of mirror image of Clinton, Bush's 2000 campaign highlighted his strict father credentials while expelling the image of Republicans as nasty and mean--which is to say, hostile to nurturing.
And when people try to figure out what Lakoff's advice means, they invariably take it as an excuse to move left and deploy buzzwords, which is not going to work:
Among the activists and donors who form the Democratic Party's base--and who can exert enormous influence over party strategy--Lakoff's name has also become synonymous with tacking left substantively while deploying more artful rhetoric. Jon Cowan, the president of a new centrist Democratic advocacy group called Third Way, has spent the last several months in and out of meetings with high-powered donors. (Full disclosure: The New Republic will be co-hosting a foreign policy retreat with Third Way this fall.) Cowan told me that Lakoff comes up in almost every conversation he has in these settings. "When we say our mission is to modernize the progressive cause--you get those words out--and the first thing everyone says is, 'Oh, have you read Lakoff?' It comes up in every meeting you're in." Cowan says that what these donors have in mind when they cite Lakoff is, "If we had a little bit better language, buzzwords, it would all work out OK."
This is technically a misreading of Lakoff, who denounces the preoccupation with buzzwords. "One of the major mistakes liberals make is that they think they have all the ideas they need. They think that all they lack is media access. Or maybe some magic bullet phrases," he writes in Don't Think. "When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas." But, by promoting the idea that Democrats can win without any substantive concessions to the political center, Lakoff essentially invites this interpretation.