When Blame is the Frame One of the biggest problems Democrats face is the blame frame. On talk shows, in Congressional hearings, in conversation—in all the paces that politics happens, Republicans have become expert at luring Democrats into the blame...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 04/21/2005


When Blame is the Frame
One of the biggest problems Democrats face is the blame frame. On talk shows, in Congressional hearings, in conversation—in all the paces that politics happens, Republicans have become expert at luring Democrats into the blame frame as a way of scoring political points. And Democrats fall for it every time.

In addition to the challenge of finding the right words to talk about American values, Democrats also need to understand--and stop getting caught in--the blame frame.

What is it? How to avoid it? What's the alternative?

What is the Blame Frame?
Everyone has experienced the blame frame in one way or another.

The blame frame is what we are in whenever we argue that we are right and "they" are wrong. The blame frame is very common in personal relationships. One of the best discussions of it can be found in a little book published by the Harvard Negotiation Project called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin Books, 1999) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. According to negotiation experts, a key element of personal conflict between individuals involves a "What happened?" conversation that takes place in our own heads even before we talk to the other person. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we focus significant attention on first explaining to ourselves why the other person got us into the big mess in the first place. The next thing we do is vocalize that,"The problem here is that you didn't tell me exactly what to do!" and so forth.

We are already in the blame frame at the moment we decide to seek a solution by pinning responsibility solely on the other person's actions. The blame frame involves a certain fantasy of resolution: if we convincingly tell the other person why they were wrong and we were right, then they will accept our reasoning and the problem will be solved.

It never, ever works.

The solution is to stop blaming and lead the discussion towards talking through each person's contributions to the situation. Once we are talking about contribution rather than blame, we are out of the blame frame. Resolution often follows. This is because the blame frame tends to exacerbate bad feelings and our own personal identity issues. The blame frame presents the blamed with no way out other than shame. When we talk about contributions to a crisis, then both parties are rewarded by understanding.

But wait a minute--this doesn't sound like the same "framing" that we've been talking about since the Democrats first read George Lakoff's ideas a few months back.

Indeed, to understand the blame frame it is vital that we start to think about framing not just in terms of cognitive linguistics (Lakoff), but also into terms of conflict resolution.

In conflict resolution, the central challenge is to find a way of understanding the crisis that will bring both parties to the table to start the discussion that leads towards a solution. So long as both parties are in the blame frame--no discussion, no resolution.

The blame frame makes things worse and getting people past it is the key to getting the ball rolling.

A Second Way of Thinking About Frames
Framing has long been a topic of interest in conflict resolution. A brief examination of Difficult Conversations reveals entire sections about framing and reframing, although their idea is very different from the cognitive idea of framing discussed by Lakoff.

Developing some skill with the conflict resolution view of framing is important because of the aggressive way that the GOP uses the media to assault Democratic candidates and ideas.

The problem of how the GOP repeats and repeats certain magic words that condition the American public to think of Democrats as "weak" or "elitist" or "pro-death"--this is still a problem. But another, equally important issue is the way these assaults throw Democrats off their game by luring them into the blame frame.

How many times have we seen this: Ann Coulter calls Democrats "treasonous" and a Democrat responds by saying that Republicans are really the one's committing treason.

Or Rick Santorum accuses Democrats of promoting a "culture of death" and Democrats respond by saying that Republicans are really the ones killing people.

It feels like the right response, but it's not. It just traps us in the blame frame.

But there's another problem: Democrats trap other Democrats in the blame frame all the time.

For example, Democrats who self-identify as "progressive" often lash out at Joe Lieberman (D-CT) for abandoning party principles. "We lost because of Lieberman and the DLC." Then a Democrat local to the DLC responds by saying that the Democrats really lost because of the radical wing of the party.

Every Democrat and every Republican in this country is so trapped in the blame frame that most of the time we end up accomplishing nothing.

What gets lost when Democrats focus on blame is that great American ability to solve problems.

For example, President Bush's Social Security proposal is so problematic and so financially irresponsible that most Americans disagree with it even after months and months of the President touring around to sell it. In Lakoff's terms, the GOP has rolled out the terms "crisis" and "accounts" to frame Social Security so that Americans see it as a threat to their livelihoods.

But as those Social Security frames have failed for the President, he has turned to the blame frame. He does this by blaming Democrats for being too scared to deal with Social Security. We got into this mess with Social Security, according to the President, because Democrats are too scared to do something.

How do Democrats respond? More often than not, we respond by saying that the real blame lies with the Republicans. After all, we got into this mess because of the huge deficits of the Bush administration. And that is true. But somehow, deep down, Democrats know that we don't fully win the debate until we get out of the blame frame, until we start problem solving.

How the GOP Beats Democrats with the Blame Frame
Time and time again, the GOP has beaten the Democrats when they successfully lure them into the blame frame, and the GOP has lost to the Democrats when blame frame tactics are fended off.

How does this work, exactly?

The answer is to translate the dynamic of a difficult conversation between two people into a national political debate between two parties and a third, silent party to the debate: the American public.

When the Swift Boat ads ran during the 2004 presidential campaign, for example, at first the damage done was that John Kerry's character was besmirched. That was a real problem because Kerry, wanting to be the leader of the armed forces, could not seem to get a way from the image of a man who undermined the armed forces.

But the real damage came from Kerry not understanding how to handle the blame frame.

Kerry's first instinct was to just avoid the issue altogether. Rather than allowing himself to be blamed, he just didn't respond. Bad choice. When blame is unanswered, it sticks.

On the other side were the Democrats who countered the swift ads with their own attack ads against George W. Bush. Those didn't work either because the American public was then deprived of reasonable, problem-solving ideas from the Democrats.

The solution would have been for Kerry to take control of the debate about war by turning the discussion from blame to contribution.

Switching from Blame to Contribution
Putting aside blame to discuss contribution is fundamental act of crisis management leadership and it is a role that Democrats need to take up in every debate if they want to stay ahead of the GOP. The contribution frame is reached by introducing a very basic dynamic into an exchange. Rather than blaming the other person or party at the table, the goal is to lead both parties to an understanding of the crisis, and then take the lead in proposing a solution.

How has each party contributed to this situation and why? What else is involved?

Once Democrats answer those questions, the next step is simply to take responsibility for their own contributions and then push hard towards proposing a solution.

Take the Swift Boat case.

John Kerry should have immediate stepped up and taken responsibility for contributing his own contribution to a contentious time in American history. He should have said that he contributed both to the war in Vietnam and to the efforts to undermine the war in Vietnam. If he had done this, he could have then talked about how the unique issue of the war in Vietnam was not just who was fighting versus who was protesting, but the issue of soldiers who were now disillusioned with the war such that they turned to protest. That was the anguish of the Vietnam era--a generation inspired to answer the call to fight for their country, who were subsequently disillusioned by what they saw, learned and experienced. "I fought the war and I fought against the war. I answered the call of the my country and I called my country out to answer for what it had done."

The next step is to clarify how things could have been done differently from the Democratic perspective.

Kerry could then have said, "Sure I made a mistake throwing a few medals over a fence. But I was young, and when you're young in America you're allowed to make a few mistakes. Some of the mistakes we make as young people involve having too much fun and some of the mistakes we make as young people involve overstated political gestures."

And all that would have remained at that point would have been to connect Kerry's contribution to his leadership as a Senator. "Were it not for my contribution as a soldier in Vietnam, I would not have become a protester in Washington. Were it not for my contribution to those protests, I would never have dedicated my life to public service."

The rhetorical possibilities are endless at this point because the blame frame has been controlled and dismantled by switching focus to contribution.

The Bolton Affair: The Power of the Contribution Frame
The contribution frame is so much stronger than the blame frame, that to simply understand it is to take a giant step towards more effective Democratic politics.

Of late, Senator Boxer has become a master at leading national debate away from blame and towards contribution. Specifically, the candidacy of John Bolton was derailed by Boxer's ability to focus the country on Bolton's contributions rather than Bolton's blame (although he may still be confirmed as of the writing of this column).

What was the big victory of Senator Boxer in the Bolton affair? She was able to convince Republican Senators to break ranks with their party and vote against the President's nomination for ambassador to the United Nations.

The issue that Boxer focused on was not Bolton's blame for having done X, Y or Z, but how his temperament contributed to the mess that our intelligence community finds itself in. The mess is an intelligence community that is ineffective.

Boxer could have gone back to the Iraq war and blamed Bolton for that, as she did with Rice's nomination. She could have blamed Bolton for deceiving the country on weapons of mass destruction. But instead, she talked about how his behavior contributed to the disfunction of a branch of our government, and how that contribution would also cause problems for us in the UN.

And my goodness it worked. Boy, oh boy, did it work.

The Republicans were forced to respond because once the blame frame is gone, there are suddenly real problems and real issues to solve. And what's even more important: the public sees those real problems, understands them, and gets very impatient if they are not addressed.

The blame frame casts a huge cloud of issues and the contribution frame clears that cloud up.

How To Avoid Blame?
We can never avoid blame, and we should not.

Real leadership is not about avoiding blame or assigning it to someone else. Leadership is about helping both parties to understand what has happened, and then stepping out in front with a solution.

In the short run, Democrats would be well-served to stop luring themselves into the blame frame. The mess Democrats are in is not the fault of one faction of the party of another. Everyone has contributed to the mess and the party will only start to win elections again if everyone contributes to the solution. The blame frame can be a very powerful enemy, or it can be the stepping stone to an unbeatable solution: unity.

In the long run, the more Democrats learn to dismantle the blame frame when it is thrust upon them by Republicans, the more powerful they will become at leading national debate.

Right now, the blame frame is being pushed with herculean force by the GOP against Hilary Clinton. They are running ads and raising money that will blame Hillary for every national problem since the colonists first stepped foot on this continent four hundred years ago. The GOP effort against Hilary Clinton will be the Spanish Armada of blame.

How should she defend herself?

Hilary needs to get very good, very fast, at reframing blame in terms of contribution. She cannot be lured into the blame frame.

The other issue on the blame front is the filibuster or so called "nuclear option." What Bill Frist and the Republicans are doing by trying to change the rules in Congress is launching a huge blame frame right at the Democrats in the Senate and the House. Will it work?

It will work if House and Senate Democrats keep blaming the Republicans for destroying congress. Democrats and Republicans have always used floor tactics to delay votes and the public knows it. The Republicans have contributed to this problem in Congress, but so have the Democrats.

The problem is that if Democrats get drawn into a squabble about blame, then the public will not hear their important solutions to the real problems at hand.

--Jeffrey Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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