Frameshop: Lamont and 'The Kiss'
As I have watched Ned Lamont gain and hold the advantage over Joe Leiberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary, I keep asking myself the same question, over and over again: Is it really Iraq--a single issue--that's giving Lamont the edge?
Despite what the media keeps repeating about Iraq, Lieberman, Lamont and Connecticut voters, what I have observed suggests a much more profound and general rule: To compete effectively in elections, Progressive candidates need a winning message and a winning frame.
A single position (e.g., "change course in Iraq") will just dangle in the wind unless it is combined with a winning message and a winning frame.
What is Lamont's winnng message? "I will stand up for America and against George W. Bush."
What is Lamont's winning frame? "The Kiss."
How Exactly Is "The Kiss" Lamont's Frame?
When we talk about a 'frame' for an election or a debate, we are generally talking about an unspoken logic that defines key election issues like: government, leadership, security, and so forth.
"The Kiss" is a frame because it provides just this sort of unspoken logic.
For example, while many Democrats may be unsure of themselves when they voice an opinion on U.S. military policy in Iraq, they are absolutely certain that the purpose of opposition party is to oppose. Most Democrats are opposed to the American occupation of Iraq, but if they also lack confidence in their ability to propose an alternative. If Democrats were 100% ironclad in their views on Iraq, America would already be a year into all-out street protests. And we are definitely not at that point.
But "The Kiss" provides a logic that is much broader and much more basic than a particular position and--I would argue--much more important in the Connecticut primary than the discussion of Iraq.
What is that logic?
"The Kiss" reminds us all that opposition should oppose, not enjoy a close relationship with the ruling party. When we see a float or a photo of Lieberman and Bush kissing, we see an image that vividly breaks with what Democrats expect from their leaders.
"The Kiss" illustrates Joe Lieberman in the act of violating the most basic Democratic principle: representation based on honesty. If Joe Lieberman is being honest about his commitment to the Democratic Party and the Democrats of Connecticut who elected him, why is he swapping spit with the leader of the Republican Party who represents the voters of Connecticut who voted against Lieberman? The answer is: because Lieberman is duplicitous. He is dishonest.
"The Kiss" shows--perhaps above all else--that Lieberman has lost any sense of humility as a Democratic leader, viewing his own opinion and his own voice as relevant beyond anything his Democratic constituents might say. If Lieberman was still a humble leader, then he would know how uncomfortable his constituents are with President Bush, and he would have known much much discomfort that kiss by President Bush would have caused his constituents. A key symptom of a total loss of humility is being completely out of touch with what does and does not turn off your constituents.
More Than Just A Picture
"The Kiss," in other words, is much more than just a picture. When Connecticut voters see the photograph of Bush kissing Lieberman, and when they see the float called "The Kiss" that keeps circulating at Lieberman events and on the internet, a frame is being evoked.
Each time Connecticut voters see "The Kiss," they are reminded that Lieberman violates their basic beliefs that elected Democratic leaders should oppose the Republican party, should be honest in their dealings with the public, and should retain their humility even after multiple terms in office.
And this is the key: before so much as one word about Lieberman's position on Iraq is mentioned, "The Kiss" puts in place the winning-frame.
Lamont's Winning Message: I Will Stand Up
Now, in the context of "The Kiss" as the framing logic for the Debate, if we go to Lamont's campaign web site, we do indeed see reference to Iraq on the first page. But before he talks about Iraq, he invokes "The Kiss" through his winning message of "I Will Stand Up." Take a look at this passage that appears under the title "Why I am Running" on Lamont's page and pay special attention to what Lamont says before he mentions Iraq (emphasized by me, just to make sure everyone gets it):
I am running for the US Senate because we deserve a Senator who will stand up for Connecticut and stand up for our progressive democratic values. Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars a day in Iraq, it is time for America to refocus on issues back home: fixing our health care system, upgrading our schools, and rebuilding our aging infrastructure. We will start winning in Iraq as the Iraqis take control of their own destiny, just as America has to start investing again in our own future.
There it is! The phrase 'we deserve a Senator who will stand up for Connecticut and stand up for our progressive democratic values' is a winning message that invokes "The Kiss."
Lamont is telling us that he is a leader who will stand up and oppose the Republicans and represent the voters of Connecticut with honesty and humility. The logic here is the exact opposite of what we see in "The Kiss," but Lamont does not need to say that. The voters know that Liberman is a leader who stands up, gives the leader of the opposition party a wet one, tellls tall tales to the voters of Connecticut about his loyalty to Progressive principles, and then ignores the voice of the country.
It is a winning message delivered in the context of a winning frame. The next sentence, of course, mentions Iraq. But I would argue that Lamont has already carried the debate in that statement before he even mentions Iraq. And he is doing it by combining a winning message and a winning frame.
What To Do About This
The netroots and the leadership of the Lamont campaign are doing an excellent job at running their campaign. So my advice is to follow their leadership! It is clearly a great team.
But there is a larger lesson in the Lamont campaign for other close races.
It will not be enough to oppose the President on Iraq. Each Progressive running for the Senate or the House must combine a winning frame and a winning message.
If you are working on a primary to unseat an old-school, anti-Progressive Democrat or heading towards a close race to unseat a long-term Republican incumbent, ask yourself this question: What is "The Kiss" in our race?
The find it and push it hard.
Obviously, this does not mean that we should back down for an instance on giving voice to the frustration of the American electorate with the failed occupation of Iraq. That is a key issue. But it is not enough.
Message and frame. Thaks to Ned Lamont for having the courage to take on a system that wanted to shut him out and ignore us. The campaign has taught us far more than we could have imagined.
© 2006 Jeffrey Feldman