'Escalation,' not 'surge'

Language matters in getting a message across.

That’s why the Senate Democratic leaders are calling sending more troops to Iraq an “escalation” of the war rather than a “surge.” And they are advising other Democrats to do the same. Now in power, the Senate leaders have a message strategy honed while in the minority.

Each Saturday, Senate Democratic leaders map message points with congressional Democratic guests booked on Sunday talk shows. The “Sunday talk show meeting” includes guests set to appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CBS’s “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week,” plus shows on CNN and FOX.


The idea is to brief the guests about major themes the leaders want to emphasize and to suggest ways to talk about the message. Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell warns Democrats not to change filibuster rule Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Trump wants executive order on policing; silent on pending bills MORE (D-Nev.), Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinFinger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown MORE (D-Ill.), Conference Secretary Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayGOP Health Committee chair says he disagrees with Trump's WHO decision Lobbying battle brewing over access to COVID-19 vaccine Trump officials seek to reassure public about safety of a potential coronavirus vaccine MORE (D-Wash.) and Democratic Senate political chief Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerA renewed emphasis on research and development funding is needed from the government Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Trump may be DACA participants' best hope, but will Democrats play ball? MORE (D-N.Y.) are in on every 4 p.m. call, along with key communication staffers Jim Manley and Joe Shoemaker and a changing guard of policy experts.

Durbin and Reid started the Saturday talk-show huddle in late 2005. Around Christmas, Durbin asked Shoemaker to get his press staff copies of Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, a new book by pollster and focus-group master Frank Luntz, whose political advice is usually aimed at Republicans.

An example of the Democratic word-smithing is calling any buildup an “escalation,” or to ask why Bush wants to “invest more lives in a failed policy.”

The old: The U.S. will stand down when the Iraqis stand up.

The new: The U.S. will stand up when the Iraqis do.


Luntz told me that the word “surge” puts focus only on the numbers of soldiers in Iraq, rather than the mission. “Escalation” causes people to link the Iraq war to the unpopular Vietnam conflict.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), in his Tuesday speech at the National Press Club, put it this way: “An escalation, whether it is called a ‘surge’ or any other name, is still an escalation, and I believe it would be an immense new mistake.’’

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) the new House Democratic Caucus chairman, is taking over master messaging duties for the House Democratic leadership. Emanuel is also urging House Democrats to frame the Bush plan as an “escalation” rather than a “surge.”

Emanuel’s team, still being formed, includes new chief of staff Sean Sweeney, who worked for Emanuel as political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC); policy director Jon Hoganson, who comes from his congressional office; and communications director Sarah Feinberg, who handled communication chores at the DCCC.

Feinberg is now running the weekly briefing for House Democratic press secretaries. And in an effort to forge relations with the Capitol press corps, Emanuel and his communications staff on Wednesday were scheduled to host a happy hour. The invitation came with an Emanuelian condition: that the session be off the record.

Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. E-mail: lsweet3022@aol.com