by George Lakoff
Last night was red-meat night. Tear up the opposition and throw them to the dogs. This is traditionally a vice-presidential task so that the president can keep his hands clean. But this time Vice President Dick Cheney had the help of Zell Miller, a nominal Democrat who almost always votes with Republicans.
It is important to distinguish between honest framing on the one hand, and framing by distortion and spin on the other. Arnold Schwarzenegger may actually believe that everyone and anyone can make it in this American economy, even though a quarter of the jobs pay very little money. But the frame that Miller and Dick Cheney were constructing last night was one that they could not have believed. This was framing by deception.
Their job was to frame John Kerry. And frame him they did. Here are the techniques they used. First, Zell Miller’s:
- Frame the Iraq War as indistinguishable from the Sept. 11 attacks, as part of the Global War on Terror
- Frame the global war on terror as monumental and a defense of freedom itself, as defining the highest duty of our generation — akin to World War II and the Cold War. Evoke Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan over and over
- Call opposition to the president’s policies opposition to the defense of freedom
- Call a vote against one appropriations bill as multiple votes against individual weapons systems. Represent votes against the weapons systems as votes against national security and hence as weakening America
- Represent Bush as strong (“a spine of tempered steel”) and Kerry as weak (“fainthearted,” “indecisive,” “self-indulgent”), wanting to turn America into a helpless child
The first three have been consistent throughout the convention, so there’s no need to go over them again. Let’s concentrate on the deliberate distortions.
Zell Miller: Listing all the weapon systems that Senator Kerry tried his best to shut down sounds like an auctioneer selling off our national security, but Americans need to know the facts.
Miller claims that Senator Kerry opposed the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the F-14A Tomcat and F-14D fighter jets by voting against them.
Miller: I could go on and on and on: Against the Patriot Missile that shot down Saddam Hussein’s scud missiles over Israel. Against the Aegis air-defense cruiser. Against the Strategic Defense Initiative. Against the Trident missile, against, against, against. This is the man who wants to be the Commander in Chief of our U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?
This list was mostly taken from a single Kerry vote in 1991 against a spending bill that was also opposed by five Republican senators. Outside the frame is the fact that Cheney, then Secretary of Defense and the overseer of the department’s budget, around that same time killed a number of major weapons systems, including the Navy’s $30 billion to $60 billion A-12 Stealth fighter. Cheney tried but failed to kill the F14D jet — the one that Miller proudly proclaims “delivered missile strikes against Tora Bora” — and restricted the B-2 Stealth bomber program to 20 planes, when the Air Force wanted more than 80.
Over and over in this convention, speakers have used the phrase “voted against X” to condemn Kerry. But a bill is a collection of many, many items, and a vote to pass it or not can be characterized as a vote for or against any of those items.
Let’s examine the most ridiculed Kerry quote about the $87 billion appropriations bill for the Iraq war, “I voted for it before I voted against it.”
Bush’s bill contained a $20 billion blank check to provide no-bid contracts to Halliburton and other firms for Iraq reconstruction, and none of the $87 billion price tag would be paid using Bush’s tax cuts. As the Washington Post has reported, Kerry voted for a different version of the bill that would have funded some of the spending by raising taxes on incomes greater than $312,000, while Bush vowed to veto a version that would have converted half of the Iraq rebuilding plan into a loan. Kerry’s alternate version was defeated and Bush’s original bill came up for a vote. Most Democrats decided to support it, as it would be sure to pass. Knowing this, Kerry on principle voted “against” it — that is, he voted against the $20 billion blank check and the no-repealing-the-tax-cut provisions. Cheney, as president pro-tem of the Senate, knows this.
Dick Cheney: Although he voted to authorize force against Saddam Hussein, he then decided he was opposed to the war, and voted against funding for our men and women in the field. He voted against body armor, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, armored vehicles, extra pay for hardship duty, and support for military families. Senator Kerry is campaigning for the position of commander in chief. Yet he does not seem to understand the first obligation of a commander in chief — and that is to support American troops in combat.
Cheney also knows that the president had previously sent soldiers into battle in Iraq without sufficient flak jackets, and that one of the many provisions in this bill was to provide them at last. Kerry knew that, when the bill passed, the flak jackets would be provided. Cheney represents this situation as Kerry voting against providing flak jackets to soldiers, as if Kerry didn’t care whether the soldiers were protected, when Kerry has criticized the president for not providing them in the first place.
More distortion: Consider what Cheney does with a portion of a speech by Kerry at the UNITY 2004 Conference in Washington, D.C. Here is Kerry’s actual statement:
John Kerry: I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history. I lay out a strategy to strengthen our military, to build and lead strong alliances and reform our intelligence system. I set out a path to win the peace in Iraq and to get the terrorists, wherever they may be, before they get us.
In context, the word “sensitive” means “sensitive to the concerns of other nations we should be trying to recruit as allies.” The whole context is about waging a strong and effective war on terrorism. Here is Cheney’s rendition:
Cheney: Even in this post-9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn’t appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a “more sensitive war on terror,” as though al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side.
At the Democratic Convention, Kerry said he would not only use force against terrorists, but if necessary, preemptive force. Cheney distorts the real position:
Cheney: He declared at the Democratic Convention that he will forcefully defend America — after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked, and faced with an enemy who seeks the deadliest of weapons to use against us, we cannot wait for the next attack. We must do everything we can to prevent it — and that includes the use of military force.
There we have the anti-Kerry frame: We are in a historic war to defend freedom itself. The war absolutely requires every possible advanced-weapons system. Kerry, by voting against a single 1991 appropriations bills, has shown that he is against national defense and the defense of freedom. He doesn’t even want our soldiers to be protected. A president in such a war must be strong and unchanging. Bush has “a spine of tempered steel,” Miller tells us. Kerry is a flip-flopper — he changes his mind and is therefore undependable and weak. He would turn America into a weak child throwing “spitballs” (Miller) and “asking for a permission slip” (Cheney). He thinks we can carry on a soft-hearted “sensitive” war against a ruthless enemy. He is weak, deluded and would not protect our country.
Framing can be an honest expression of what you really believe. It has been for a number of speakers at this convention. But last night’s speeches by Miller and Cheney are filled with classic examples of framing by willful distortion.
George Lakoff is the author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (University of Chicago Press, 2002). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.