< Cleaning Up the Language


Friday, May 15, 2009

Last December, we spoke with Republican consultant Frank Luntz, the man responsible for, among other verbal acrobatics, renaming the estate tax the “death tax” and recasting global warming as “climate change.” He made the following prediction on our show about then-President-elect Obama.

FRANK LUNTZ: I think that he will engage in a rebranding and a re-phraseology of the political lexicon.

BOB GARFIELD: This week The Los Angeles Times reported on the Obama Administration’s “rephrasing of the political lexicon.” Jim Tankersley is a Washington bureau reporter on the energy and environment beat for the Tribune papers. He’s written about the recent rebranding efforts, and he joins me now. Jim, welcome to the show.

JIM TANKERSLEY: Hey, thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: During Obama’s campaign, his website was peppered with the term “cap and trade,” referring to the limits on greenhouse gas emissions for business. You've written that “cap and trade” is now on the outs with the [LAUGHS] Obama Administration. What in the world is wrong with it?

JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, most people don't understand it. A recent Rasmussen poll, in fact, this week showed that three-quarters of the country doesn't really know that cap and trade is even associated with global warming. Every time I write about it, I have to spend a paragraph or two explaining exactly what it is, and there are still readers and even editors sometimes who are confused by it. So as a quick shorthand for “we want to fight global warming,” it’s just not as an effective tool, I think, as the Obama Administration wants.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. What replaces it?

JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, what replaces it isn't necessarily a clear description of what they want to do on global warming. Cap and trade is a pretty good description of what they want to do on global warming. They want to cap greenhouse gas emissions with a system that allows big polluters or emitters to trade permits for those emissions. What they're trying to replace it with is something that’s not really focused on global warming at all. It’s this idea of “clean energy jobs.”

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay, well fair enough. Clean energy jobs might flow from the economy that is created by cap and trade legislation, but they're clearly not the same thing. Isn't that kind of -squirrelly?

JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, the other part of it is, when you bring up cap and trade you’re necessarily talking about a policy mechanism which, you know, it’s just not that catchy. But if you talk about job creation, well, everybody knows that, and it can mean very different things to different people, which is sort of what they're going for here. They are allowing people to sort of look into their policy on global warming and, by framing it as clean energy jobs, see what they want there. You work in manufacturing? That means that you’re going to be making wind turbines, even if your auto factory closes. You are a scientist? Well, that probably means more research dollars for you. You’re in a depressed community? Well, maybe solar cells could kick start your rebirth. So it’s sort of a green Rorschach, if you will, the Administration’s tossing out there for people to see.

BOB GARFIELD: Now what about the phrase “global warming” itself? Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality met with a research and marketing group to discuss alternatives [LAUGHS] to the phrase “global warming,” and the President has advised members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to steer clear of it.

JIM TANKERSLEY: Well “global warming” can be really polarizing. I know that every time I write about global warming I get lots of email from readers who say, why are you spending so much time writing about what’s essentially a hoax. There are certainly a lot of people out there who don't believe the science, and there’s a very sharp partisan division over what to do, even among the people who do believe the science. So, rather than kind of frame the issue again in terms of what has become somewhat of an emotional wedge, they're trying to steer the discussion back to this job creation, which, of course, everyone is supposed to be for.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, am I to understand that while the President wants to talk about green jobs, he is otherwise discarding the word “green” as in green energy?

JIM TANKERSLEY: This is a big issue, particularly in the industrial heartland. “Green” to them, polls are showing, brings sort of these visions of an effete Al Gore, coastal, liberal, granola-eating kind of policy, whereas “clean,” clean is something that everyone can relate to. It’s something people equate with pollution – clean air, clean water, clean energy. While they may be very different things, those three things, that’s the framing that Democrats believe sells best in the Rust Belt.

BOB GARFIELD: The Democrats have certainly learned at the feet of their former masters. The Republicans, led by the consultant Frank Luntz, were geniuses at shaping the environmental debate. How are they, for example, dealing with cap and trade?

JIM TANKERSLEY: That’s an interesting evolution, too. For a while they were saying “cap and tax,” sort of a funny little play on cap and trade that emphasizes what’s for sure the biggest downside of this policy, which is the very high likelihood that it will raise energy prices for consumers, across the board. But then they ran into the same problem the Democrats did. Nobody really gets the “cap and” part. So they dropped the “cap and tax” and now you hear them talking about a “light switch tax” or a “national energy tax,” which is sort of the preferred House Republican lexicon. They believe that this is a very effective club to swing at vulnerable Democrats.

BOB GARFIELD: In making your decisions about what language to use, do you shy away from clear language that might be associated with one side of the debate or the other for fear of being seen as, you know, under their thrall?

JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, it’s much easier just to say “clean energy jobs” than it is to, each time you do it, try to explain it all the way through, but you kind of have to. Part of our job here is to educate people on a topic and to try to do it in a very apolitical way. And it may be that we run out of terms that can do that. You know, you look at the immigration debate. If you put “illegal immigrant” into the paper, you get a lot of angry mail from one side. If you put “undocumented worker” in, you get a lot of angry mail from the other. On the other hand, a big cap and trade bill, that’s about dealing with global warming, and just because the White House doesn't want to talk about it necessarily as much doesn't mean we shouldn't.

BOB GARFIELD: Thank you so much.

JIM TANKERSLEY: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Jim Tankersley is an energy and environment reporter in the Washington bureau of The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune.