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UC Berkeley Point of View

Nailing the frames of the Republican National Convention: President Bush's acceptance speech

Thursday, September 2: Freedom, liberty, freedom

 UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff filed daily dispatches about the language used in the major speeches of the Republican National Convention. Lakoff is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute and the author of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think"; his latest book, "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate," will be published by Chelsea Green in mid-September. (Bart Nagel photo)
•  August 30: All terror, all the time
•  August 31: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps — if you can afford the boots
•  September 1: Red-meat night frames Kerry
•  September 2: Freedom, liberty, freedom

Over the first three nights of the convention, Republican speakers carefully crafted a tripartite frame for President George W. Bush's Thursday acceptance speech:

• Night 1: The Global War on Terror defines our lives and our generation.
• Night 2: With enough discipline, all Americans can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become prosperous. Those "girlie men" who don't prosper have only themselves to blame.
• Night 3: Kerry is weak, unpatriotic, antimilitary, against national security, without resolve, soft-hearted, confused, and totally unfit to be commander-in-chief.

After Wednesday night's bare-knuckled assaults by Zell Miller and Dick Cheney, the president's speech Thursday was comparatively kinder and gentler.

The president first responded to Democratic charges that he has lost over a million jobs, done nothing about the 45 million people without health care, hurt education by refusing to fund the No Child Left Behind program, and badly injured Medicare by not allowing it to compete on drug costs with private HMOs. He began by simply saying the opposite, listing "accomplishments": tax cuts that were working to produce jobs, the passage of No Child Left Behind, the passage of Medicare "reform."

He then presented his "opportunity society" program, based on strict-father conservative values. Just as good children must learn discipline both to be moral and to be prosperous, so good citizens — the ones with discipline — can become prosperous by pursuing their self-interest if the opportunity is there. For conservatives, this means getting government out of the way — providing "pathways," not programs.

Freedom was the thread linking his domestic policies to his foreign policy. In domestic matters, it means freedom from the United States government.

George Bush: I am running with a compassionate conservative philosophy: that government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives.

In all these proposals, we seek to provide not just a government program, but a path — a path to greater opportunity, more freedom, and more control over your own life.

We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal account nest egg you can call your own, and government can never take away.

Conservatives have long sought to destroy Social Security and Medicare, for two reasons: First, from their moral perspective, all social programs remove the need for discipline and create dependency. Since discipline is seen as the basis of all morality, all such programs are immoral. Second, there is a business motive. Businesses can make more money if they can get their hands on all the Medicare and Social Security money as investments in them, not in the people whose health and future are insured. The conservative solution is to privatize both programs, creating "personal accounts." More freedom.

The motivation for government-run Social Security was that each generation would pay for the next. In Medicare, as in any insurance program, the lucky (those not injured or diseased) pay for those less lucky. In addition, gpvernment-run Social Security offers the twin motivations of economy of scale and of protection — from stock market declines, bad judgment in investments, and from an individual's squandering. But in conservatism, those who are not sufficiently disciplined deserve what happens to them. If you're undisciplined enough not to establish a personal savings account, or not shrewd enough to invest it wisely, then you deserve to lose your health and retirement money and starve in your old age.

After all, conservatism posits a natural moral hierarchy of winners and losers. Conservatism gives you motivation (a pathway) to win. If you lose, your loss is a motivation to win in the future. If you're not disciplined enough to take advantage of the opportunities, too bad for you. You just won't make it in the opportunity society. And you don't deserve to.

This frame hides the 25 percent of our work force who are stuck in low-paying jobs, jobs that 25 percent of U.S. citizens will always have to do and that may never pay much more. Not having spare money to invest, they can't take advantage of the tax credits to set up these accounts. Well, the losers will always be with us.

The "opportunity society" rhetoric is crafted to sound like it will remedy the same ills that the Democrats are talking about. But it is virtually the opposite in real content. Take "dependence on foreign oil." The Democrats point out that the U.S. uses about 60 percent of the world's oil, but has only 3 percent of world reserves. Kerry's argument for going to a massive alternative fuel program is that, given these numbers, "you cannot drill your way to oil independence." The Bush program is to drill everywhere. More freedom.

George Bush: To create more jobs in America, America must be the best place in the world to do business. To create jobs, my plan will encourage investment and expansion by restraining federal spending, reducing regulation, and making tax relief permanent.

This ideologically based conservative program seems to ignore the long-term benefits to business of government investment of tax money — as in the highway system, the Internet, the development of semiconductors, medical and scientific advancement and scientist training through government grants, and tax-funded institutions that support business, such as the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and the court system, which is used 90 percent for corporate law. Or maybe it doesn't ignore them, but just wants ordinary taxpayers to pay for them.

George Bush: As I have traveled our country, I have met too many good doctors, especially OB-GYNS, who are being forced out of practice because of the high cost of lawsuits. To make health care more affordable and accessible, we must pass medical liability reform now.

In fact, legal settlements account for a relatively small amount of the increased cost of medical malpractice insurance. Such lawsuits are in fact the last resort that the public has against unscrupulous or negligent corporations that produce products and services that harm the public. Without them, corporate accountability would fade away, and unscrupulous corporations would become free to poison the public and destroy the environment for profit. More freedom.

That was 40 percent of the speech. The rest was on the War on Terror, though he never once used the phrase. The frame inspiring terror had been well established on previous nights, leaving Bush to talk about spreading freedom.

George Bush: The story of America is the story of expanding liberty: an ever-widening circle, constantly growing to reach further and include more. Our Nation's founding commitment is still our deepest commitment: In our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom.

Significantly, he did not once use the phrase "war on terror," but did use the word "liberty" 11 times and "free" or "freedom" 23 times. Here are a few instances of them:

George Bush: And we are working to advance liberty in the broader Middle East, because freedom will bring a future of hope, and the peace we all want. And we will prevail.

…Free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful societies, which no longer feed resentments and breed violence for export. Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists instead of harboring them, and that helps us keep the peace.

…The terrorists are fighting freedom with all their cunning and cruelty because freedom is their greatest fear and they should be afraid, because freedom is on the march.

The claim was that both Iraqi and Afghan societies had become free — or inevitably would soon. This, of course, has been seriously questioned. The further claim is that we have made great progress toward making the world terror-free.

George Bush: Our strategy is succeeding. Four years ago, Afghanistan was the home base of al Qaeda, Pakistan was a transit point for terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia was fertile ground for terrorist fundraising, Libya was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, Iraq was a gathering threat, and al Qaeda was largely unchallenged as it planned attacks. Today, the government of a free Afghanistan is fighting terror, Pakistan is capturing terrorist leaders, Saudi Arabia is making raids and arrests, Libya is dismantling its weapons programs, the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom, and more than three-quarters of al Qaeda's key members and associates have been detained or killed. We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer.

This ignores the news during the convention of terrorist strikes in Russia, Israel, Sudan, and elsewhere. It also ignores the news that the Taliban and al Qaeda are gradually regaining their hold in Afghanistan, and that "insurgents" now control a significant portion of Sunni Iraq. But saying makes it so.

How does the president know that victory is inevitable? Because God is on our side.

…I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world.

And why is God on our side? Because we possess the primary conservative virtues: inner strength, discipline and the conservative compassion to promote opportunity for other disciplined people; in other words, George Bush's heart of gold and "spine of tempered steel," as Zell Miller put it.

George Bush: …in those military families, I have seen the character of a great nation: decent, and idealistic, and strong.

The world saw that spirit three miles from here, when the people of this city faced peril together, and lifted a flag over the ruins, and defied the enemy with their courage. My fellow Americans, for as long as our country stands, people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: Here buildings fell, and here a nation rose.

And all of this has confirmed one belief beyond doubt: Having come this far, our tested and confident Nation can achieve anything.

This young century will be liberty's century. By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world. By encouraging liberty at home, we will build a more hopeful America. Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.

The code words from conservative Christianity are easy to decipher: 9/11 was God's test of our mettle. Did we have enough inner strength? The response in New York (led by Mayor Giuliani) and the courage of our military shows that so far, we have. Our nation is like every good person, every disciplined individual: it too can pull itself up by its bootstraps, "can achieve anything." The "resurrection" of New York City signals the Resurrection of America in this election. God is calling to us "from beyond the stars to stand for freedom."

To meet God's call, we must show our inner strength and resoluteness by voting for a leader with that character — not the flip-flopper, but George W. Bush!

George Lakoff's affiliation with the Rockridge Institute appears for identification purposes only.

Previous NewsCenter interviews with Lakoff:

• Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the "war on terror" and other conservative catchphrases, 26 August 2004

• Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics, 27 October 2003

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