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The Political Virtue of Lying and Determination

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"The Political Virtue of Lying and Determination"

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Suppose you’re committed to defending a politically unpopular position. You think, for example, that banks shouldn’t pay any increased taxes or face any new regulation. What to do? Well as Frank Luntz explains to congressional Republicans, you just lie like crazy. You pretend that the bill you’re opposing is a giant bailout for banks, and that you oppose the bill because you’re against unpopular bailouts. Here’s his sample language:

Congress is preparing to enact legislation to pass a law with $4 trillion more for more bailouts. Should people who write the financial reform laws be the same ones who helped cause the crisis? Should taxpayers be punished and the big banks and credit card companies be rewarded? The time has come to take a stand. Oppose the big bank bailout bill.

That’s just totally false. Jon Chait has an amusing riff on this, but I think it highlights something important about the political process, namely the absolute importance of deciding what you want to do. Once a political party has achieved consensus on what it wants to do, almost all political problems are solvable. Want to oppose taxes and regulations on banks? Just pretend you’re opposing bailouts! It’s extremely easy.

What’s hard is to actually try to construct the boat while you’re sailing. If you have an agreed-upon plan, you can then huddle with focus group experts and work out the language. But that only works if everyone on your team actually agrees as to what’s going on. If there’s disagreement, then your language needs to contain some real content, since your statements involve communicating with other members of congress. At the moment, for example, nobody’s quite sure what Chris Dodd will put in his bill. Consequently, nobody’s quite sure if they agree with Dodd’s bill. And as a consequence of that, Dodd can’t just lie blatantly when he talks about his process—his utterances need to contain content that’s relevant to the merits of the issue, because key actors actually want information from Dodd about the bill. If he starts lying, nobody’s going to be sure what’s going on.

In a practical legislative controversy, this is a pretty crippling disadvantage. And then to make matters worse, the very fact of disagreement makes your ideas look bad. If all Republicans think something is bad, and Democrats can’t seem to agree on whether or not it’s bad, then heuristical reasoning leads to the conclusion that it’s probably bad.

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