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The art of addressing the masses - Billy Corriher

Last week I wrote a column that said President Bush was "untouchable in the eyes of his conservative base." After writing the column, I heard an interview on National Public Radio discussing why that may be true.

George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, was explaining how Republicans are much more adept at using language to "frame the issues" in a political debate.

Lakoff pointed to the phrase "tax relief" as evidence of the Republican's skill at using language. Relief implies that someone is afflicted, and the person who provides the relief is a hero, he said.

But Lakoff pointed out that taxes pay for our entire American system – our schools, our roads, our justice system and social programs. Paying taxes is a matter of patriotism, he said.

When Bush was campaigning for president, we heard a lot of talk about the "marriage penalty" and the "death tax" (otherwise known as the estate tax). Bush's actual policy positions may have been valid, but for most people (especially those of us who aren't economists), the words by themselves conjure images of evil, oppressive taxes.

Lakoff also mentioned Bush's linking of Sept. 11, 2001 to the war against Iraq. Though Saddam Hussein had no involvement in the attacks (Bush himself has had to clarify that fact), Bush convinced the American people Hussein was involved by constantly mentioning his name in the same sentence as the attacks and the War on Terror.

Since President Ronald Reagan, Republicans have relied on sound bites and photo opportunities to get their messages across.

They subtly frame the issues for the public, while Democrats are more likely to try to explicitly express their policy positions. Sen. John Kerry, especially at the beginning of his campaign, was criticized for speaking too much like a legislator.

Having addressed the halls of Congress for so many years, Kerry had trouble relating to people. Then, Kerry was reported as saying the Democrats did not need the South's support to beat Bush.

To top it all off, you had former Gov. Howard Dean's remarks about his desire to be the candidate for "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

If you add this all up, it seems likes you've got a Democratic Party that is out of touch with regular folks, especially Southerners. I had a friend tell me once that they liked Bush because he "seemed like a regular guy."

I reminded him, of course, that Bush's father was a president. But that didn't matter because Bush had deftly used sound bites with a slight Southern drawl and photo opportunities (driving around his ranch in an old pickup) to convince people that he was one of them.

But I think if the public looks closer at Bush's record (particularly his tax cuts), they'll realize he doesn't care about ordinary folks as much as he wants them to think.

Sen. John Edwards, from my home state, has identified with regular people more than anyone other Democratic candidate. His years as a trial lawyer trained him to relate to people, to "feel their pain." Edwards' appeal is needed in the Democratic Party, particularly in the South.

As long as Republicans are the only ones trying to speak to ordinary people in a manner they understand, the GOP will have a monopoly of support among ordinary voters, especially in the South.

Billy Corriher covers government and politics for the News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 281 or at bcorriher@news-daily.com.