Debunking Doctor Luntz

Frank Luntz, the self-styled “word doctor” who has given us such linguistic gems as “climate change” and “oil exploration,” recently had exposed his 17-page talking points memo for how to kill financial reform.
Reviewing Luntz’s focus group “research” (my euphemism) in the memo, one is struck by how hungry his respondents actually are for financial reform.  Summarizing one of his consensus findings, Luntz warns financial reform foes, “You must acknowledge the need for reform that ensures this NEVER happens again.”  He also finds that another strong consensus of “public outrage about the bailout of banks and Wall Street.”

Given this popular appetite for financial overhaul, Luntz is forced to counsel a strategy of obfuscation and deception as the best way to fight strong regulatory reform, particularly the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA).  “Frankly,” he writes, “the single best way to kill any legislation is to link it to the Big Bank Bailout.”  In other words, opponents are told to link the CFPA to the (unrelated) future bailout of Big Banks as a way to derail its creation, even though the whole point of the CFPA is to eliminate the kinds of abuses that contributedto the last bailout. 

True to form, Luntz finds that the fourth-most common complaint against the proposed CFPA is that it “authorizes future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street.”  Surprised as to how this could be one of the grievances regarding the CFPA, I went back and read Luntz’s test instrument question.  “Which of the following, if true, would concern you most about the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency?” It then has the authorizing-bailouts response on its list to choose from. Masterful.  I suppose one of the reasons, if true, I might have supported invading Iraq is that it would help us catch those responsible for 9/11.  Driving this obfuscation home in talking point 17, Luntz sums up: “This is not a reform bill.  It is [the] Big Bank Bailout bill.  This is important.”  (It is also false.)

In addition to specious linkage of the CFPA to future bailout, Luntz advocates outright deception, such as the fabrication that the CPFA will somehow harm small businesses (this mistruth doubtless inspired by another finding in the report: ads relating to small business entrepreneurs garnered the most sympathetic audience response).  Thus another talking point proclaims: “the Financial Reform bill and the creation of the CFPA makes it harder to be a small business owner because it will choke off credit options to small business owners.” 

Evidence?  None here (just the talking point), although earlier he muses rhetorically, “What will be the effects and impact of the CFPA?  How will small business be affected?  Will choices be limited?  Will consumer fees be impacted?  Evidence suggests the answer is definitely yes.”

Luntz’s omission of this evidence is unsurprising. If anything, the CFPA is likely to help small businesses obtain credit by simplifying the terms of credit agreements under which these entrepreneurs borrow and by reducing the compliance costs of lenders who have to report to only one consolidated regulator.

After allowing his respondents to focus on the top three reasons why they would hate the CPFA based on premises he provides, Luntz then asks whether, upon reflection, respondents support or oppose “a new federal consumer financial protection agency that will regular all consumer and business loans.”  Forty percent strongly oppose – go figure!

My point is not just to discredit Luntz’s report as faux-research.  It is to show how desperately even a talented political guru like Luntz must stretch to find a way to negatively frame an otherwise popular reform.  He tries gamely to invoke populist anger: “the proponents of the new government agency and regulations are the same members of Congress who created and supported the housing bubble,” but does so at the expense of logic and facts. 

Does Luntz reflect that the opponents of the new government agency and regulations are also the same members of Congress who created and supported the housing bubble?  Does he appreciate his irony in demanding to know, in response to the crisis, “What government policies were changed?  What laws were repealed?” – in the document where he lays out a frame for killing the proposals to change those policies?  Luntz has many talents, and torturing language to manipulate human psychology for political gain is one of them, but here he may have met his linguistic Waterloo. His memo, even on its own amoral terms, is flawed and weak.  Doubleplusungood, Dr. Luntz.

John A. E. Pottow is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who specializes in bankruptcy and commercial law.