The Senate Democratic leadership attacked GOP pollster Frank Luntz at its weekly press conference Thursday, mocking Republicans for taking their health care advice from the man Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) repeatedly dubbed "Dr. Frank I. Luntz."
"What we're hearing from the Republican leadership on the floor of the Senate is vaguely familiar. Dr. Frank I. Luntz issued this plan," said Durbin, waving a copy of a memo that Luntz wrote several months ago, outlining rhetorical tactics to oppose health care reform.
Durbin highlighted arguments made by Republican leadership: "They tell horror stories about health care stories in other countries. That would be Dr. Frank Luntz's talking point number five." And on he went, referring over and over to the talking points outlined in the Luntz memo.
Shortly after Luntz had released his memo, Democratic strategist Paul Begala responded with his own point-by-point counter-memo. "Because they know they cannot win the argument honestly, Republicans are resorting to mendacity," Begala wrote. "Democrats must not let them get away with it."
But the Senate Democrats already knew all they needed about such mendacious methods: Luntz himself had briefed them at a Democratic retreat earlier this year. His co-panelist: Paul Begala.
Since that January retreat, he has also briefed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) personally, a Reid aide confirmed. The message to the leader and to the Senate Democratic caucus was the same: Words matter.
"He didn't talk about health care in particular," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of Democratic leadership. "He talked about words, and words matter, and how important it is how you portray what it is you're doing. And obviously now he's advising Republicans what kind of language they can use to fight for the status quo."
The Luntz-Reid meeting was also about messaging. The majority leader and the Republican pollster had met several times over the previous several years, although only met once this year, other than the retreat, said a senior aide to Reid. Luntz didn't return several calls and e-mails.
Reid is not averse to meeting with a wide variety of consultants, the aide said, naming Begala, Geoffrey Garin, Mark Mellman, Susan McCue, Jim Margolis and Third Way's Matt Bennett as folks who've met with him this year. "He might not listen to all of them, but he hears them out," the aide said.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) said that many in the room left with a grudging respect for Luntz. "I thought it was great," he said of the briefing. "He really showed his ability to put things in interesting terms and people had to concede that he was pretty good at the use of language."
Murray, too, was impressed by Luntz' skill, if not his ultimate political goals--if, in fact, he actually has any underlying political ideology.
"I think people listened to him with interest. He's an intelligent guy and his goal is to help you provide the language to fight for what you believe in. And certainly he's doing that right now for those who want to oppose any kind of change in health care," she said.
Democrats have been slow on the rhetorical battleground, according to Feingold. "I think people took to heart not only what he was saying but [were] closely following how he was trying to manipulate the health care issue," Feingold said. "After the experience in 1994 and various other issues, Democrats have learned the lesson that you can't just have the right policies, you also have to use the right language. It's a question we were a little slow in learning."
Republicans, meanwhile, are calling themselves less impressed by Luntz's memo, claiming that the arguments they make are their own.
"There may be some overlap between what pollsters say and what politicians say, but some of it's just common sense," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "We're for reform."
But being on the side of reform is Luntz talking point number ten, the Huffington Post pointed out.
"We didn't need him to tell us that we're for reform," said Stewart.
Ryan Grim is the author of the just-released book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America