George Lakoff on Obama’s mistake

George Lakoff is one of the most insightful writers on public discourse that I’ve read. Here’s an interesting post by him on why the Obama campaign has been wrong-footed recently by McCain.

I’ve been getting loads of email asking me to say something to the campaign. So with some hesitation and a great deal of respect, I will simply point out what I see.

Four years ago I wrote a book called, Don’t Think of an Elephant! The title made a basic point: Negating a frame activates that frame. If you activate the other side’s frame, you just help the other side, as Nixon found out when he said, “I am not a crook,” which made people think of him as a crook.

The Obama campaign just put out an ad called “No Maverick”. The basic idea was right. The Maverick Frame is central to the McCain campaign, and as the ad points out, it’s a lie. But negating the Maverick Frame just activates that frame and helps McCain. You have to substitute a different frame that characterizes McCain as he really is. There are various possibilities. Let’s consider one of them. Ninety percent of the time, McCain has been a Yes-Man for Bush. Think in terms of questions at a debate. If the question is, is McCain a maverick?, you are thinking about him as a maverick, even when you are trying to find ways in which he isn’t. McCain wins. If the question is whether McCain is a Yes-Man for Bush, you put McCain on the defensive. People think of him as a Yes-man 90 percent of the time, and try to think cases when he might not have been. This is not rocket science. It’s the first principle of framing.

The “No Maverick” ad also misses an opportunity. It correctly observes that McCain’s campaign is loaded with “lobbyists.” But most of the people the ad is trying to reach don’t know just what a “lobbyist” is. McCain is saying he is fighting against the Washington power structure. A lobbyist is a “member of the Washington power structure.” If you use such a phrase, you can point out that McCain campaign itself is part of the Washington power structure, the old-boy network…