Analysis - Frank Luntz Address, San Francisco


November 10, 2009 - San Francisco, CA - - I had the opportunity to hear Frank Luntz, noted polling guru and Fox News commentator, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last Friday.

A kinetic presence in the room, shuttling about the small raised stage and darting into the audience of approximately 100, Luntz was quick to establish his mastery of opinion polling and marketing while pushing his new book, "What Americans Really Want...Really: The Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears."

Aside from the nuts and bolts of his solid presentation, Luntz revealed a side of his overall political perspective not on display during his numerous Fox appearances.

My guess is that some of Luntz' Fox fans might have found this not-so-television-friendly side a bit troubling, or at least giving pause for concern.

Luntz is obviously highly intelligent, if you can't grasp it from his encyclopedic grasp of political arcana you will be informed of his PhD obtained at Oxford, his entry into the world of high-level politics as a 17-year-old phenom and his work with Newt Gingrich on the "Contract with America," the vehicle upon which rode the GOP's 1994 political ascendancy.

He is obviously an impressive guy.

What this writer found troubling, and I will freely admit some of this was inferred by the presentation and not specifically stated by Mr. Luntz, is that he looks at politics in a very non-traditional way.

He views political contests not necessarily as a battle of ideas but a duel involving sloganeering, where the well turned phrase or adroitly expressed concept often trumps the rightness or wrongness of the idea or philosophy itself.

In the case of the Gingrich revolution, marketing expertise was appropriately joined with a novel and much needed laundry list of political goals.

But that pairing was serendipitous, not reflective of the very real concerns that marketing based politics presents. One only has to note the current resident of the White House in order to glimpse the dark side of selling candidates in the same manner that feminine hygiene products are hawked.

One aspect of Luntz' approach to politics is that it seems to breed a very un-nuanced view of all things political combined with a certain arrogance, demonstrated by his inference that Sarah Palin was ignorant and that, as GOP standard bearer in 2012, she would sink the party.

His stated reason for determining Palin's inadequacy was based upon the assumption that she had a less than comprehensive grasp of what can only be termed political factoids.

Though Luntz would not specifically identify the party it was clear from his reference to a now infamous rumor fanned into a wildfire by Fox News' Carl Cameron, where he revealed that a nameless source, apparently from within McCain's dysfunctional ramshackle of a campaign, said that Palin was unaware that Africa was a continent and not a country.

Given the vituperative nature of the McCain gang and their constant jealousy based anti-Palin leaks, Cameron's grandstanding was journalistically unethical, since no one was willing to go on the record.

Regardless of the truth or falsity of Cameron's claim, the point was that Luntz was all too ready to accept it, leading him to remark that his vision of the GOP was one of intellectual excellence, offering Newt Gingrich, George Will and William Kristol [he did not specify Sr. or Jr. to my remembrance, there being a huge difference].

Luntz' apparent belief that political righteousness flows from on high, decreed by an effete political meritocracy betrays a sense of arrogance and the fact that he was willing to reduce the only GOP political phenomenon in some time [Sarah Palin] to a most likely concocted, thumbnailed caricature seemed to add to the impression.

An equal opportunity dismissive spirit imbued this part of Luntz' presentation, similarly skewering other politicians, most in a trite manner which bore greater or lesser resemblance to reality. It was not beneficial to his reputation to hear recapitulated quips which have been kicking around for so long they have become the stuff of urban legend.

Another aspect of Luntz political world view seems to revolve around a fundamental misunderstanding [or possibly rejection] of the centerpiece of the American political system, we being the heirs to a republican form of government, not an Athenian type, direct democracy.

Demonstrating this disconnect was his suggestion that since [and I am closely paraphrasing here, not having recorded the address] "Americans consider health care a right" that it was therefore worthy of GOP deference, if not acceptance.

Nowhere was there a questioning in his mind, at least from this public presentation, of exactly where in the Constitution this right to free health care paid for by others exists.

There was a word that the Founding Fathers had for direct democracy, they called it "mobocracy," something they rightly feared, knowing that it was based upon the base emotion of envy, which ultimately leads to "leveling" a quaint term of the times, equating more or less to socialism.

There are so many historical examples in which the majority imposed an immoral, discriminatory but popular sanction against a minority that they are too numerous to waste time listing here.

In Luntz' world of dispassionate political marketing such sentiments should be indulged and formulated into clever 30 second pitches.

Perhaps it is this apparent lack of a moral center [to be fair he did state, ultimately but unconvincingly to this writer at least, that he was very conservative] which proved most disappointing in Luntz' otherwise entertaining presentation.

Luntz' methodology is dismissive, in a particularly cavalier manner, of the citizen politician, who perhaps lacking the raw, generally useless political knowledge that, let's say a Joe Biden might have [who has claimed to be on a first name basis with most of the world's leaders, but has been wrong on probably every national security issue he has ever contemplated] might nonetheless intimately, almost genetically understand both the plight as well as tradition based solutions to the day's most intractable issues.

Politics at its best is a battle of ideas, more or less plainly stated; Luntz' approach debases much of this lofty warfare's beauty and value.

© 1999-2009 LLC, William Mayer. All rights reserved.