Frame Game

The C Word

Conservatives, having demonized liberalism, are being hoisted with their own canard.

Cynics think postelection spin is just a one-dimensional game of manipulating expectations and persuading the media that you surpassed them. For the most part, that’s true. But spin can also be profound. It can address more than who’s up and who’s down. It can redefine people, issues, and events by rotating their facets so that people see them from new perspectives. For this reason, the contest of interpretation that consumes the 24 hours after an election is as important as the election itself. It defines the election and its mandate.

This is what’s happening to Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party in the wake of Tuesday’s elections. Gingrich has built a career and a movement by manipulating terms such as “liberal” and “welfare state” to caricature and marginalize his enemies. Now the tables are turned. The word “conservative” is being manipulated by Gingrich’s enemies and the media to caricature and marginalize Republicans. If Gingrich isn’t careful, the C word could go the way of the L word, and conservatives could go the way of liberals.

Around 9 on Election Night, under fire from journalists over the GOP’s mounting disappointments, Republican flacks began falling back on their safest success story: the victories of George W. and Jeb Bush in the Texas and Florida gubernatorial races. This defensive maneuver quashed one dangerous story line–“Why are all the Republicans losing?”–at the expense of opening another: “Why are all the Republicans except the Bush boys losing?”

The media took up this question and, over the next two hours, hammered out a consensus: “Moderate” Republicans were winning, while “ideologues” were losing. The Bush boys became Exhibits A and B. As network anchors and analysts batted around and refined the theory, the previously sacrosanct C word began to creep into the discussion, alongside “right-wing” and “extremist.” “Bad night for conservatives,” declared ABC’s Peter Jennings. CNN’s Bill Schneider contrasted the success of the GOP’s moderate “governors’ wing” with the defeat of “the congressional wing that’s been dominated by conservative ideologues.” By Wednesday morning, reporters such as Bill Plante of CBS were recycling the conventional wisdom that the losers were “Republican conservatives.”

Political factions on all sides encouraged this theory. Moderate Republicans such as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, angling for advantage within the GOP, touted the Bush brothers as evidence that the party should spread “a broader tent.” Gloomy conservative pundits, eager to finger culprits, accused congressional Republicans of having provoked needless hostility.

The three most accomplished spinners of the Clinton White House egged on the conflict. On CNN, Mike McCurry predicted that “right-wing Republicans” in Congress wouldn’t take kindly to George W. Bush’s “conservatism with a compassionate face.” This deliciously backhanded phrase–an allusion to Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face,” which was crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968–conveyed three corrosive messages: that conservatism lacked compassion to begin with, that conservatives couldn’t tolerate compassion, and that for this reason, conservatism, like socialism, was doomed. On ABC’s Nightline, George Stephanopoulos predicted a “civil war” between “the conservatives and the moderates,” citing the Bushes and other Republican governors as leaders of the latter faction. Rahm Emanuel predicted that “the extreme right” would tighten its control over the GOP’s “moderates.” Before the night was over, Jennings was asking whether “we’re going to see a real power struggle now between moderate Republican governors and the leadership in Congress,” and ABC analyst George Will was predicting a showdown in 2000, with moderates rallying around George W. Bush.

If the consensus interpretation of the 1998 elections is that moderates won and conservatives lost–and that the Bush boys represent what moderates are and what conservatives aren’t–then conservatism, as a word and as a philosophy, is in deep trouble. This is what happened to liberalism two decades ago: It became associated with everything on the left that seemed immoderate. If, conversely, conservatism were to become associated with everything on the right that seems immoderate today, the list would include the Starr investigation, moral intolerance, racism, and disregard for the material concerns of ordinary people.

These were precisely the associations pasted on conservatism in the decisive hours after Tuesday’s elections. TV reporters and analysts repeatedly identified conservative ideologues with the impeachment inquiry. They portrayed the Christian Coalition as conservatism’s standard-bearer, declared the coalition’s candidates losers, and contrasted this with the success of “the centrist, pragmatic Republican governors.” They exalted the Bush brothers’ outreach to blacks, hispanics, and women, and implied that other Republicans had written off these groups. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, agreed on Nightline that the GOP had neglected women and ethnic minorities. By Wednesday morning, NBC’s Tim Russert and ABC’s Cokie Roberts were chiding the GOP for confining its appeals to white men.

Just as liberalism was reduced to a synonym for weakness, conservatism is being reduced to a synonym for meanness. Even the defeat of Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y., who was renowned for gobbling up federal pork and was endorsed by the nation’s leading gay rights group, is being celebrated by the New York Times as “a public verdict on the bare-knuckle style of Republicanism that has become the fashion in Washington,” in contrast to the “conciliatory style” of “moderate” Republicans. Worse yet, conservatives’ enthusiasm for the impeachment inquiry and for moral issues in general is being framed as a distraction from material concerns such as health care, education, and retirement security. On NBC’s Today show Wednesday morning, Russert declared the gubernatorial contest in Alabama “a very instructive race. The Republican, Fob James, according to business leaders down there, emphasized prayer in school rather than jobs for kids who graduate from school.” Russert concluded, “The perception is [that] House Republicans are more interested in cultural issues, in philosophy and ideology, than they are in the pragmatic performance of Republican governors.”

Gingrich, the maestro of demonization, recognizes this unfolding catastrophe and is desperately trying to avert it. He appeared on every network Tuesday night to insist that the Bush brothers and other victorious Republican governors such as George Pataki (New York), John Rowland (Connecticut), Tommy Thompson (Wisconsin), and John Engler (Michigan) were conservatives. He argued that these governors shared the congressional Republican agenda enshrined in the 1994 Contract With America. “Every single one of them is a tax-cutting, reform-the-government, conservative Republican,” Gingrich declared on ABC. The next morning, at his postelection news conference, Gingrich accused the media of misrepresenting the victorious governors as moderates rather than conservatives. And he pointed out that indisputably conservative candidates had won contests, such as the Senate races in Illinois and Kentucky.

Gingrich has a point. In their haste to proclaim Tuesday’s elections a repudiation of conservatism, the media have oversimplified some winners as moderates and some losers as conservatives. Results that don’t fit the theory, such as the defeat of Matt Fong in the California Senate race, have simply been ignored–as has the fact that the Republicans retained their majorities in both houses. Meanwhile, plenty of other good explanations have been offered for the GOP’s setbacks. Some analysts think Senate Republicans alienated conservative voters by giving up on tax cuts and caving in to Clinton in the budget negotiations. Others blame Republicans for muting substantive conservative issues such as education reform in a misguided wager that the Lewinsky scandal would bring conservative voters to the polls. Others blame the GOP’s scandal ads for stirring up Democratic voters.

Poor Newt. What’s being done to him and his conservative allies this week is just as unfair as what they’ve spent their careers doing to liberals. And just as effective.

Recent “Frame Games”

Election Night Excuses“: William Saletan analyzes 20 classic postelection spins. (posted Monday, Nov. 2, 1998)

The Flytrap Ad War“: Why the GOP’s new ads are too clever by half. (posted Friday, Oct. 30, 1998)