The Man Who Gives the White House Fits

Frank Luntz
Frank Luntz
Language consultant Frank Luntz

With his walrus-like smile and portly gait, Frank Luntz resembles that genial out-of-town uncle who's a family favorite with the kids and the dogs over Thanksgiving (which very well may be the case, by the way.) But when it comes to his day job, advising clients on the political use of language, Luntz is a stone cold killer.

Starting with his polling work for the GOP's Contract with America,, Luntz has been giving Democrats fits for years. Even more so since the Democrats regained the White House following the 2008 elections. You can see his influence in the language which dominated the health care reform debate. His influence is also apparent in the impasse over financial regulation reform.

Video: Frank Luntz on Voter Anger Why's Sen. McConnell trashing Wall Street Regulation Bill?
McConnell's Bungle: Financial Reform Comments Traced Directly to Luntz Talking Points

Now the White House has started to whine about Luntz. Earlier this week, deputy communications director Jen Psaki complained in a blog post about the latest turn in the debate over financial reform and pointed a finger of blame his way: She wrote:

"One false criticism we're hearing is this: that the Senate bill will allow endless taxpayer-funded bailouts of financial firms. What they won't tell you is that they are taking their marching orders from a partisan political consultant who has told them that the best way to oppose real reform is to link it to the bank bailouts. In fact, the polling memo they're working from explicitly states that "the best way to kill any legislation is to link it to the Big Bank Bailout." No matter what the bill actually does, they're going to call it a bailout because that's what the polls tell them to do."

So it was that all 41 Republican Senators have lined up in opposition to the reform legislation proposed by the Democrats and the language they used in the signed letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could have been lifted straight out of a Luntz primer. To wit: "We simply cannot ask the American taxpayer to continue to subsidize this 'too big to fail' policy," they wrote. "We must ensure that Wall Street no longer believes or relies on Main Street to bail them out. Inaction is not an option. However, it is imperative that what we do does not worsen the current economic climate or codify the circumstances that led to the last financial crisis." The fight is officially on. (One stroke of unexpected luck for the White House: the Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit accusing Goldman Sachs of fraud.)

When the health care reform debate got going last year, the president found himself fighting an uphill battle to control the rhetoric. Maybe his advisers underestimated who they were up against. They can't use that excuse any longer.  Luntz is the best in the business and he is again going to put Barack Obama's formidable prowess as Explainer-In Chief to the test.

  • Charles Cooper On Twitter»

    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.