When politicians talk directly about “messaging,” reporters should tune in

I love politicians who will talk openly about their “messaging.” Everyone knows it chews up huge amounts of behind-the-scenes time (and money), but the insider debate about messages doesn’t spill out much.

When it does, reporters should be all over it, not to play “gotcha,” but to help real people (none of whom read this blog) understand how different communications “frames” illuminate competing worldviews about government and values.

For example, on KLZ’s Grassroots Radio Colorado Feb. 17, the hosts and Colorado Rep. Robert Ramirez got into an honest discussion about how the GOP should talk about poor people and budget cuts.

Ramirez started off by saying, “The Democrats have a benefit. Everything they say makes somebody feel good about something in their life. When we say, ‘we got to quit spending so much, we can’t take any more money to pay for those poor kids,’ it doesn’t sound as good.”

He has a point. This makes the GOP sound like they aren’t very concerned about the poor.

Ramirez went on: “We have to say something more like, we need to spend the money responsibly to be able to help people the most, and not just waste dollars in places they aren’t helping anyone.”

So the frame here is that government is the bad guy. It’s wasting money in useless dark places, some of which may sound like they’re helping kids, but they’re really not.

Ramirez continued:  

But when somebody says, you’re trying to kill children, you have to say, that’s an interesting comment. Honestly, we have to spend the money the best way to help the most people. So it doesn’t matter what they say, we have to, one, stay on message, and we have to keep the message in a positive arena, not negative against the other side. And that’s the key, positive towards our message versus negative against them. Negative doesn’t work.

Here, Ramirez presents a progressive counter “frame” that the GOP is “trying to kill children” by cutting government, whose programs (like generous children’s health insurance) save lives and should not be axed if you care about giving impoverished kids in the world’s richest nation the basic opportunity to succeed in life.  (Okay, that’s a dramatic rendition of this frame, but I’m just making a point.)

Actually, I don’t know any progressives who think Ramirez or other conservatives want to kill our children. But progressives point to studies showing that if conservatives succeed at, for example, charging more for state-run health insurance, more kids could certainly get sick, and, yes, possibly die. (Colorado Sen. Greg Brophy, among others, acknowledges the risk to kids.)

So you see how the two frames of “good government” versus “bad government” play out in Ramirez’s statements on the radio.

Underlying these competing frames about government is, of course, the debate about taxes.

And so it was fitting that, at the end of his Grassroots Radio Colorado interview, Ramirez turned the topic to taxes.

Ramirez, who’s indicated his opposition to the extension of unemployment benefits and who’s supported Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan in the past, argued that everyone should pay the same percentage of their income in taxes:

“You know what,” Ramirez said on the air, “it doesn’t matter if it’s 1o percent, 50 percent, 30 percent, 60, the moral part is, everyone should pay the same percent. If you are making $100 per week, you should pay 10 percent. If you are making a million dollars a week, you should pay 10 percent.

I don’t know how this translates in the real world into anything but a massive tax cut, and as such, major slashes in government spending for the poor.

If he stayed on message, and didn’t talk about taking money away from poor children, Ramirez would probably say he’s cutting waste, creating a responsible, smaller government, and helping people most through tax cuts.

And a progressive might say Ramirez is undermining what we all want, to work together through government to give poor children and families basic opportunity and a fair shot at success, and we can raise taxes a little bit to do it, on people who can afford it.

Reporters should look for chances, like Ramirez’s radio appearance, to illustrate these competing worldviews underlying political “messaging.”

Partial Transcript of Feb. 17 Interview with Rep. Robert Ramirez on Grassroots Radio Colorado on KLZ 560 AM, weekdays, 5 – 7 p.m.

Ramirez: Romney, much like many Republicans, allows someone else to dictate what his message will be, kind of like a senatorial candidate we had last year….

Host: Republicans don’t know how to message. They’re messaging sucks. In your mind, what can we do to change that?

Ramirez: You know, it’s not just message. The Democrats have a benefit. Everything they say makes somebody feel good about something in their life.

Host: Yeah. I suppose that’s true.

Ramirez: When we say, we got to quit spending so much, we can’t take any more money to pay for those poor kids, it doesn’t sound as good. So we have our message–

Host: Like Rollie Heath’s message–

Ramirez: Yeah. We have to say something more like, we need to spend the money responsibly to be able to help people the most, and not just waste dollars in places they aren’t helping anyone. But when somebody says, you’re trying to kill children, you have to say, that’s an interestingt comment. Honestly, we have to spend the money the best way to help the most people. So it doesn’t matter what they say, we have to, one, stay on message, and we have to keep the message in a positive arena, not negative against the other side. And that’s the key, positive towards our message versus negative against them. Negative doesn’t work.

Host: …Morally, how much should someone pay in taxes?…If you are a successful contributing member of the economic class, a business owner, something like that, you’re at 30, 40, 50 percent. At what point is it immoral?

Ramirez: You know what, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1o percent, 50 percent, 30 percent, 60, the moral part is, everyone should pay the same percent. If you are making $100 per week, you should pay 10 percent. If you are making a million dollars a week, you should pay 10 percent.

Host: I agree. I could not agree more, actually.

Ramirez: I don’t know an actual percentage, but you understand what I’m saying. It should be a percentage based on everyone. That encourages people to make more money and create more jobs.

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