He Who Frames the Issue Claims the Issue

Monday, April 18, 2005

He Who Frames the Issue Claims the Issue

In liberal circles, Cal-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff has virtually achieved celebrity status these days, thanks largely to his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” Although I believe progressives’ challenges go well beyond the “framing” on which Lakoff focuses, I also believe that he raises a relevant point: it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

When the bad guys are permitted to reframe issues like the estate tax, bad things happen — as a recent Washington Post article observed:
In 1992, when heirs to the Mars Inc. fortune joined a few other wealthy families to hire the law firm Patton Boggs LLP to lobby for estate tax repeal, the joke on K Street was that few Washington sightseers had paid so much for a fruitless tour of the Capitol.

Today, the House is expected to vote to permanently repeal the estate tax (NOTE: This is precisely what happened last week), moving the Mars candy, Gallo wine and Campbell soup fortunes one step closer to a goal that once seemed quixotic at best: ending all taxation on inheritances.

… Last month, (Yale University law professor Michael J.) Graetz and Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro published "Death By A Thousand Cuts," chronicling the estate tax repeal movement as "a mystery about politics and persuasion."

… The secret of the repeal movement's success has been its appeal to principle over economics. While repeal opponents bellowed that only the richest of the rich would ever pay the estate tax, proponents appealed to Americans' sense of fairness, that individuals have the natural right to pass on their wealth to their children.

The most recent Internal Revenue Service data back opponents' claims. In 2001, out of 2,363,100 total adult deaths, only 49,911 — 2.1 percent — had estates large enough to be hit by the estate tax.

… Repeal opponents have been unable to whip up big support, [Graetz] said, because they never made the emotional case that the American belief in equal opportunity runs counter to the existence of an aristocracy born to inherited riches.

… By 1994, Newt Gingrich's Republican insurgents had latched onto the estate tax issue, but the Contract With America called for an estate tax reduction, not repeal. In 1995, (Republican pollster Frank) Luntz poll-tested the term "death tax" and advised the new GOP majority to never use the terms "inheritance" or "estate tax" again.

By then, [the pro-repeal coalition] was spending more than $250,000 a year on lobbying …. "There's been a sustained, determined campaign of misinformation that in the end has left the American people with a very different notion of what the estate tax is and does than actually exists," (Democratic Congressman Earl) Pomeroy said.
Sustained, determined, shamefully misleading, but very effective because most liberals did nothing to try to counter conservatives’ slow, steady effort to reframe the issue of inheritance taxes.

More activist liberals engaged the issue, but mostly by tossing out a series of statistics that speak to the head, but not the heart.

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