So who else saw John Kerry on Meet the Press yesterday and said "I wish that John Kerry had been our presidential candidate"? The only other time I saw John Kerry speak with such clarity, conviction and self-possession was the first presidential debate.
There were two things that really struck me. One was that Kerry's accent is back. His Massachusetts accent. He sounds like an aristocratic Yankee. He used to pronounce the "a" in "ask" as an "ah." It sounds vaguely British. It was gone during the campaign, no doubt on the instructions of the same person who told him to lose the "g"s at the end of gerunds, no doubt to pander to Southerners or Midwesterners. I always thought that it was stupid. I'm glad he's talking like himself again.
The other one involved this exchange on Social Security:
MR. RUSSERT: But people you know...
SEN. KERRY: It's a bad program...
MR. RUSSERT: People you know...
SEN. KERRY: ...and we should oppose it.
MR. RUSSERT: People you know and respect--Bob Kerrey, Democratic senator; Warren Rudman, former Republican senator...
SEN. KERRY: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...Pete Peterson, Concord Coalition--said this is it, straight out. "Ensuring a more sustainable system will require change, meaning that someone is going to have to give up something-- either in the form of higher contributions, lower benefits or a combination of both. No Social Security reform will succeed unless this fact is acknowledge up front."
SEN. KERRY: Tim...
MR. RUSSERT: You're saying raise taxes by rolling back the top bracket. You're raising taxes on richer Americans to pay for Social Security.
SEN. KERRY: Well, Tim, you can call it what you want. I mean, if you think rolling back to the level that we had in the 1990s, when an awful lot of our friends made an awful lot of money and people did very well in America--if you think that's raising taxes, then you can go ahead and have that definition. I think it's rolling back. I think it's rolling them back to a level of responsibility.
What you have today is irresponsibility. The president is going to add $4 trillion to the debt of this nation just with his tax cut, which is $1.9 trillion over the next 10 years, and his Social Security plan, which is about $1.6 trillion. It's almost $4 trillion, just in those two choices the president is making. Now, you can look at--look at this headline. Here's a headline that ought to send shudders through America: Central Banks Shun U.S. Assets. This was last week in The Financial Times. Why are they shunning U.S. assets? Because of the fiscal irresponsibility of this administration.
Now, Lakoffian purists might disagree with what Kerry did here. After all, we're not supposed to concede the Republican framing of the issue, even if we're just repeating the words they use. And by acknolwedging that you can call what he wants to do "raising taxes," you might be lead to think Kerry is committing a tactical error.
But there's something about the way Kerry challenges the frame that seems instructive to me. "Well, Tim, you can call it what you want." "[I]f you think that's raising taxes, then you can go ahead and have that definition." No pandering about values, no dodging the question. He takes a stand. If you want to call it raising taxes, go ahead. I have my priorities. My priorities are not letting Bush destroy social security. If you want to sit around and argue about what it means to "raise taxes," go ahead.
But meanwhile, Kerry substitutes his own frame for "raising taxes": "I think it's rolling back. I think it's rolling them back to a level of responsibility. What you have today is irresponsibility." Now, I don't think that that's a particularly strong frame, even though it's perfectly correct.
(As far as taxes go, I've actually always thought we need a better frame. A while back, Tom Friedmann wrote a column that suggested that Democrats use the term "service cuts" instead of "tax cuts." "President Bush's proposed service cuts." I've always personally like something like "deficit increasing measures." And you could call a tax bill itself the "Burdening our Children Act.")
But I digress. There are two interesting things that Kerry does, and he should have done them more in the presidential campaign: 1) he challenges the republican frame in strong terms, and by doing so, trivializes it ("call it whatever you want") and takes the moral high ground for himself, and 2) explains why he wants to substitute his own in reasonably succint terms.
I'm saying all this because been a lot of talk in recent months about how Democrats need to do a better job of framing issues, but talk about how to do it has been rarer. The problem with reframing an issue that the republicans have already framed is that you have to convince people that your frame is better. Merely saying "service cuts" instead of "tax cuts" doesn't do it. Substituting "service cuts" for "tax cuts" while saying you don't actually care what they're called strikes me as smarter politics.