FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: THE MESSAGE IS NOT THE FRAME

[We are pleased to announce that FRAMESHOP by Jeffrey Feldman is now a regular feature on BuzzFlash.com.] To Reframe National Security, Democrats Must First See How 'Message' And 'Frame' Are Different print email When progressives talk about ‘framing’ the political...

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Frameshop, 03/13/2006

[We are pleased to announce that FRAMESHOP by Jeffrey Feldman is now a regular feature on BuzzFlash.com.]

To Reframe National Security, Democrats Must First See How 'Message' And 'Frame' Are Different





When progressives talk about ‘framing’ the political debate, we often confuse ‘frame’ with ‘message.’   We want framing to be a quick path to victory, a magic bullet delivered in the form of a perfect talking point, that brings the opposition to its knees.

In fact, framing is not a magic bullet, but a set of tools that empowers progressives to be more engaged by taking control of the debate--first by seeing the broad ideas that trap us in a losing position, and then by re-framing the issues in moral terms that speak to ideals of the American people.  Framing, in other words, makes us better readers, better listeners, and better participants in day-to-day politics, thereby enabling us to become the kind of citizens that are most effective in the culture of media driven politics. 
A key area where the Democrats need to use framing is national security.

‘War on Terror’
Despite the growing pile of scandals, Republicans still control the debate on national security with one phrase:  War on Terror.

‘War on Terror’ is more than just a phrase.  It is a carefully constructed concept--a set of magic words--created by highly-paid consultants to help the Republicans claim the mantle of national security.   ‘War on Terror’ is still repeated over and over again by President Bush with the goal of trapping Democrats in a losing position.  If the President describes the War in Iraq as part of the ‘War on Terror,’ for example, he can accuse anyone who does not support his war of not wanting to fight the people who attacked us on 9/11.  And that is exactly what he does.  Democrats who try to refute the President’s policies, but who still use this phrase ‘War on Terror,’ find themselves trapped in a losing position that turns them into rhetorical contortionists.   

The phrase ‘War on Terror’ should be avoided in debate because it traps Democrats in this simple metaphoric logic:

[terrorism] is [an enemy army]

But what is ‘terrorism’ really?  It is a tool used by enemies--a method--but it is not an enemy itself.  We can no more fight a war against ‘terrorism’ than we can fight a war against the evil in men’s hearts.  And in fact, the real war President Bush is fighting is a war to establish a permanent American foothold in the Middle East, and the war to claim as much power for the executive branch of government as possible.  But we never get to those ideas when we are constantly forced to defend ourselves against charges that we are ‘weak’ in the ‘war on terror.’

Re-framing:  Guard the Gates

So how do we get out of this trap?  How do we re-frame the debate on national security?

The answer to this question has been difficult to see--until recently.  The so-called UAE port deal scandal, however, revealed to the nation exactly how President Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ was so radically different from the understanding of national security held by most Americans.

When the port scandal broke, most Americans were shocked to to learn that these vital entries into our country were being turned over--whether in part or in full--to a foreign country.  While accused of being racist for this reaction, in fact the concern over the ports is founded in a very basic idea.  The protect the country from those who seek to harm us, we must prevent those people from gaining access.  To do that, we must guard the gates.

Think about this for a moment.  After America learned that the country had just been attacked by ordinary looking men who boarded planes with coach-class tickets and carry-on luggage--what was our major concern as a nation?  We were afraid that more terrorists would board the planes.  And so, to protect the country, we created a massive security system to guard the gates at our airports. 

Imagine if we were to suddenly discover that the agency responsible for airport gate security was owned in full or in part by a foreign country, running that service for profit?    We would be outraged because we would suddenly wonder if the gates were really guarded.

Long before the UAE port scandal, Americans believed that to guard this country we must prevent bad people and dangerous materials from getting through the gates.  And when we saw the port scandal unfold, we saw that President Bush had not only left the gates unguarded, but he had sold the keys.
The phrase ‘guarding the gates’ is a progressive idea that re-frames the debate on national security.  It is not the final message, but offers a broad logic for understanding how Democrats can once and for all take back the debate on this crucial issue.
But the issue does not stop there.

Iraq and 9/11, But Also Katrina

For when we talk about re-framing the debate, we need to think big.  When we begin to repeat the idea of ‘guarding the gates’ as the key to national security, we see how President Bush has not only weakened national security, but also compromised national safety.

The lack of vigilance and concern by President Busy in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina speaks to a broader problem that we begin to see when we talk about the importance of ‘guarding the gates’ to the well-being of America.

President Bush watched as Katrina, literally, slowly headed for a full on attack of our nation’s unguarded shoreline.  He watched and he listened, but as the videotape shows:  he did not stand up and insist on doing everything possible ‘guard the gates’ of our country from this threat.

Obviously, a terrorist attack and a hurricane are two very different things.  But to take control of the debate on national security, Democrats must see national security--and talk about it--in much broader terms than just the war on Iraq.

A newly framed Democratic version of national security would sound something like this:

There is a fundamental split between the Republican and the Democratic vision of national security.   Republicans insist that the key to national defense is to fight a war on foreign soil, and they tell us that this will prevent terrorists from gaining access to our country.   But even as they fight a foreign war, they leave the gates to our country unguarded.  Democrats believe that national security begins with guarding the gates at home, and building strong alliances abroad.  We see every port, every border and every airport as an opportunity to strengthen our security and guard Americans from those who seek to attack us.   And security goes hand in hand with safety.  Guarding our shores from hurricanes is just as important as guarding our ports from attacks.  For Democrats, safety and security begins with guarding the gates.

That is what it looks like to be in a new frame--to speak about national security in terms that are completely separate from the ‘war on terror’ and in terms that give Democrats the upper hand.

Putting It To Use

To understand how to put the 'guard the gates' frame to use, it is critical for Democrats to start seeing political debate in terms of different core situations.  Not all debate is the same.  There are different situations that involve different people and have different outcomes.

Situation 1:  Grassroots Activism
To use this new frame in grassroots work, try creating a basic 'I believe' statement that can be repeated quickly and with conviction:

Democrats believe that safety and security begins by guarding the gates.

This phrase can be used when people ask what the Democrats stand for, when recruiting people to vote for Democratic candidates, when working on a phone bank, and when training new volunteers.  The power of the "I believe" formula (also called an 'Elevator Speech') is that it presents your big ideas quickly.  After that, the discussion on terrorism and the military will be on Democratic terms.  And grassroots activists should push to talk about national security and national safety together.  "Democrats believe in well-guarded ports and having a plan before the next natural disaster hits our shores."

Situation 2:  Democratic Staffing
A staffer in Congress or in state government is charged with the task of preparing our elected officials to speak persuasively.  To re-frame national security in terms of 'guarding the gate,' the staffer needs to tell their principals two key points so that they understand the big picture:

  1. 'War on Terror' is a Republican phrase. It traps us in a losing position.  Don't use it.
  2. 'Guard the Gates' is a Democratic phrase.  It gives us the advantage.  Use it.

This basic preparation should be enough to get your boss's attention.  Next the task is provide a few key phrases to be used in speeches and interviews:

  • To secure the nation we must first guard the gates.
  • The safety and security of American both rest on how well we guard the gates.
  • To protect America we must guard our ports, plan for disasters

These phrases are just a beginning, but the key point is to see the importance of a two-step process for staffing.  First, tell the elected official which phrases are controlling the debate, then give him or her messages to use.

Situation 3:  Candidates Running For Office
Candidates running for office must understand that their ability to control the debate on national security  will not result from how much they talk 'issues,' but from how well they keep the debate in their frame.

Do not take the bait of responding to accusations that Democrats are 'weak on defense' and undermining the 'war on terror.'  Instead, steal the ball in the debate this way:

Weak on defense?  Democrats would never invade a foreign country without making sure our gates were securely guarded at home.  Weak on defense?   We cannot be strong on defense until we see every port, every airplane gate, every border crossing as an opportunity to strengthen our national security, rather than a potential business deal.

When accused, that is one way to throw the debate into the 'guard the gates' frame.  And it can work if you do not get distracted by the 'war on terror' frame.

In those moments when there is no opposition with barbed questions, candidates have a chance to state what we believe.  I always like to use the formula of moral accounting--phrases that use the word 'deserve' or 'earned' as follows:

Americans who live hard and play by the rules deserve a government that guards Americas gates to keep us secure from attacks and safe from natural disaster.

There are many variations of that kind of message, which can be used as a starting point for entire speeches on the Democratic vision of a safe and secure America.

Situation 4:  Individual Citizens, Dinner Table Debates
At the dinner  table with a Republican cousin or sister, be careful not to let your anger get the best of you.  Anger can be intimidating, but it does not reframe a debate.  When someone confronts you with the accusation, '...yeah, but Democrats are weak on defense,' remember that the Democratic frame is designed to take control of this entire issue--not to refute it point by point.

Try saying this at the table:

Look, I hear what you are saying, but I believe that safety and security begin with guarding America's gates.  Democrats want to take every point of access to this country, every port--and every border--and we want to make sure we are prepared for whatever comes our way, whether that is a group of terrorists or the largest hurricane in history.

I believe that safety and security begins with guarding the gates.

Then help yourself to another helping of turkey and mashed potatoes.  So long as you do not raise your voice, but listen to what your Republican family members say, and respond with a clear frame, you will not lose the debate.  You may hit a stalemate, but you will not lose.  And remember, the people listening to the debate--the other people at the table who are not talking--are often the ones we persuade, even if the debate ends in a stalemate.

Remember, the messages that work best are developed by our own attempts to apply the frame.  It is alwasy best not to confuse the 'frame' with the many different 'messages' or talking points we produce from that frame.  A solid Democratic frame will give rise to many great phrases that invoke it.  When you find one that works, run with it.

The key is never to let the opposition set the terms.

© 2006 Jeffrey Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2006, Frameshop

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