Election 2004

To the Ladies in the Room

Warning: Frank Luntz arms Bush with 'framing' devices to court the womens' vote – Bush's anti-woman record be damned.
AUSTIN – Last week on PBS's "NOW With Bill Moyers," there was a long interview with Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and message-meister. Luntz recently advised Republicans to explain "the policy of pre-emption and the war in Iraq" by recommending that "no speech about ... Iraq should begin without a reference to 9-11." This would be despite the fact that the 9-11 Commission concluded Iraq has no connection to 9-11. Now you know why the administration continues to make this nonexistent connection.

Luntz described his methods with appealing pride. His job is to "set the context" and "frame the debate," which he learns how to do through focus groups, polls and dial sessions. But he kept drawing the line at the word "manipulation." No, no, he doesn't manipulate people, he insisted, he merely gives them a context for the message, he merely discovers what it is they want to hear and how best to say it to them.

I'm listening to all this because this is what the shrewdies in Washington pay attention to – you can't hardly be a political writer anymore without sources on linguistics, semiotics, message control and all this good business. It dates you something awful if you do old-fashioned stuff, like call politicos to find out how it's going.

Luntz has discovered that the 4 percent of Americans who still have not made up their minds about this election tend to be working women, younger, new mothers and fairly low-wage earners. I was pleased to hear Luntz explain how he'd uncovered the most interesting thing about these women. By dint of clever professional questioning, Luntz had come to notice that what the women seem to feel they need more than anything else is... time. I was staggered, since I and every other woman journalist I know have been saying this for only the last 20 or 30 years.

Yes, said, Luntz informed us, working women are feeling incredibly pressured, between home, job, aging parents, demanding kids, etc. Their lives are just a-jangle with demands, and not enough time to fill them. Now here, explains Luntz, is where he comes in.

"You have to empathize," he said. "The very first thing you have to do, it's not about issues, it's about empathy. They have to know that you care, that you understand them, that you understand the frustrations." Say a candidate of his – say George W. Bush – is at a town hall meeting. He'd say, "'Now I want to talk to the ladies in the room' ... 'the women in the room' is how I would put it ... and you say: 'Well, I'm gonna throw this out. I want you tell me if I'm right or not. Ladies here, I'd say that your lack of free time is one of the greatest challenges.' And they'll all sit there, and they'll raise their hands, and they'll all nod yes. At that moment, you have bonded with those women."

Which is all well and good, except then I'm trying to envision what George W. Bush says to them next. The National Women's Law Center released a study in April, called "Slip Sliding Away," on the erosion of women's rights. It found, under Bush:

The Labor Department has refused to use tools at its disposal to identify violations of equal pay laws.

Labor repealed regulations that allowed paid family leave to be made available through state unemployment funds. Now it's unpaid leave only.

Labor has proposed new regulations that deprive millions of workers of the right to overtime pay – and even gives tips to employers on how to avoid paying overtime when the law still requires it.

The Department of Justice has weakened the enforcement of laws against job discrimination and abandoned pending sex discrimination cases.

Among the Bush budget cuts affecting the lives of millions of women are cuts in Head Start and other early childhood education programs, after-school programs, K-12 education, housing subsidies, child care, career education, services for victims of domestic violence, the nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC) and Pell grants to help pay for college.

All in all, it's kind of hard to see how Bush could convince "the ladies" that he has helped take stress out of their lives. Unless, of course, the lady is married to a guy who makes $1 million a year – then she'd have $92,000 extra a year to spend from the Bush tax cuts.

Here's my problem. This is the record – this is what's being done to women's lives. But it's so passe, you see, to write about it. No linguistics, no empathy, no putting it in context. Just the record. No one does that kind of journalism anymore. How embarrassing.

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Molly Ivins is a best-selling author and columnist who writes about politics, Texas and other bizarre happenings.