A lesson in political language

There is an excellent lesson in political communication in a recent National Journal story on Mitt Romney’s trouble in Michigan (“The Headline That Haunts Romney“). As Tim Alberta notes, Romney’s problem from a 2008 op-ed pieces in the New York Times demonstrates how framing an issue shapes how voters will respond to you.

The problem in Romney’s article (“Let Detroit Go Bankrupt“) goes beyond a headline that implied a lack of concern about the survival of the auto industry:

In Romney’s boardroom vernacular, “bankruptcy” represents a fresh start — the chance for a failing company to shed excess weight and emerge leaner, stronger and better prepared for long-term success. But in living rooms and kitchens across middle class America, “bankruptcy” means something totally different — it represents rock bottom, the worst case scenario, that losing turn of “Monopoly” or “Wheel of Fortune” where everything is taken from you.

For most Americans, bankruptcy reflects a person or business hitting its lowest point and walking away from responsibility. Many American feel uneasy about the idea of “managed bankruptcy” and language turn failure into an opportunity is alien.

American accept that sometime we have to leave people or entire industries behind. However, our loyalties to one another function at such a deep level that Romney’s business calculus seems foreign.

Romney’s failure to communicate may not reflect fairly on his approach to problem. Still, his choice of words have come back to haunt him and the case makes an excellent example of how carefully candidates need to frame their arguments and find ways to relate to voters. In some ways, it reminds me of Jimmy Carter who had a way of spelling out what the American people knew was true in ways that citizens just couldn’t relate to.

Cover of Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear  by Frank I. LuntzIf you’re interested in some good reading about political language, check out Frank Luntz’s book, Words that Work.

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