Republican pollster Frank Luntz is terrified. His carefully crafted world of euphemism, obfuscation and double talk is about to be exposed by the loudest voices on conservative talk radio as cynical pastiche, which will not be good for his polling and consulting business.
Mr. Luntz may have coached Republican candidates on how to use the dark arts of disingenuous language to get elected, but he's about to find out that opportunistic gamesmanship can take even a master manipulator only so far. Mr. Luntz's long-term standing in the GOP as a Machiavelli-for-hire isn't threatened for anything like whispering unflattering remarks about Ronald Reagan in the corner of a cocktail party hosted by Planned Parenthood.
Ironically, Mr. Luntz's future as a molder of Republican talking points is threatened because he did something party-driven pollsters like himself aren't usually known for doing -- he told the truth. Unfortunately for his own overrated brand, he chose to tell the truth about the polarization in American politics during a question-and-answer session at the University of Pennsylvania.
Because Mr. Luntz graduated from Penn and taught there briefly decades ago, he assumed he was among friends, although there were Democrats and folks simply curious about the speaker's notoriety sprinkled among the Republican true believers. It was not an invitation-only session.
Urged by his audience to come clean in ways he obviously hadn't in his speech, Mr. Luntz said he would be hesitant to ascribe blame for America's troubles if the things he said were on the record. He asked that all recording devices be shut off. The reporter from the student newspaper complied, but one student kept recording with his cell phone. Because he wasn't a student journalist, he didn't feel bound by the rules that bind journalists.
Once he thought he was off the record, Mr. Luntz lit into conservative talk radio as the source of much of our political dysfunction:
"And they get great ratings, and they drive the message, and it's really problematic. And this is not on the Democratic side. It's only on the Republican side," he said. "[Democrats have] got every other source of news on their side. And so that is a lot of what's driving it. If you take -- Marco Rubio's getting his ass kicked. ... He's getting destroyed by Mark Levin, by Rush Limbaugh, and a few others.
"[Rubio's] trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn't the traditional Republican approach, and talk radio is killing him. That's what's causing this thing underneath. And too many politicians in Washington are playing coy," he said.
If Mr. Luntz hadn't been recorded, he would've denied saying those words, because he is terrified of Rush. He never has been accused of being a brave man, but until he ran his mouth in Philadelphia last week, very few people thought Frank Luntz was a stupid man, either. Now, he spends his days looking over his shoulder, waiting for Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Levin, the two most outrageous conservative talk radio hosts in America, to weigh in with unflattering observations. When it happens, it will not be good for business.
Believing that a good offense is always preferable to playing defense, Mr. Luntz has attempted to distract from his criticism of Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Levin by attacking the student who gave the investigative magazine Mother Jones the recording of his remarks. Mr. Luntz also canceled a university-based scholarship given annually in his father's name. He also promised that after he discharges his commitment to Penn to sit on a panel during graduation weekend, he's done with his old school.
"I'm very disappointed that at Penn, that trust between students and speaker is gone," he said shamelessly, implying that a golden age of candid speakers is dead.
"I can't imagine a speaker coming to Penn and being so open. ... Frankly, I think it'll have a chilling effect on whether speakers do or don't come. I wish it didn't," Mr. Luntz said, although he had already promised he would work hard to discourage speakers from visiting Penn.
Mr. Luntz did not get caught in a lie, although a lie would've been infinitely preferable to the truth he was caught uttering. Mr. Luntz's knees are knocking because a student who wasn't a journalist ignored the chummy rules that abet so much lying in politics and shared the spin doctor's words with the world.
Now he'll have to come up with a real doozy to appease the rabid talk radio gods.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.