MoveOn's Genius - Framing - Why the Patraeus Ad Worked

There has been a whole lot of hoopla over Moveon.org's recent New York Times ad calling Gen. David Patreus - the US Commander in Iraq - "General Betray Us." Hell, the political firestorm was so intense, the Democratically controlled United States Senate passed a resolution condemning that ad by a vote of 72-25. 22 Democrats voted with all of the Senate's Republicans. Of the current Democratic Presidential candidates who are also Senators, Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd, to their great credit voted against the measure. Barack Obama voted on the Senate floor earlier that day, but was nowhere to be found for this vote. Good for Clinton. Shame on Obama. And I'm not even a Clinton supporter.

Anyway, back to the topic. The much vaunted ad looks like the image on the right and was released right ahead of General Betray-Us's testimony in front of the US Congress on September 10-11. So, given the conservative uproar and the Senate's condemnation, did the ad work?

The answer: an astounding and unequivocal yes. But for a different reason than you might think. From a framing and messaging point of view for us progressives, this was sheer genius. Sure, the merits of the ad itself are solid, as Moveon.org's research is published and open to the public, but that's perhaps even less than half the story of the success of the ad. And a lot of people focused on that in the blogosphere already. I want to focus on the genius of the ad - the framing of the debate. The debate was framed in the first 3 lines of the ad: General Patraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the Books for the White House. One primary concept about framing is you want to keep the debate on your terms - more precisely, in your frame - instead of in the other team's frame. Moveon.org set up the frame and ran with it. This put conservative supporters of the Iraqi occupation on the offensive. Constantly - even today - they and the media continue saying something along the lines of "They called General Patraeus General Betray-Us!" Then the conservatives go about explaining why that's so wrong. But by the vary nature of that attack, they are repeating - and thus reinforcing - the General Betray-Us frame. Here are the frames they reinforce every time they repeat those mere words:
  1. Betraying the American People: The General is supposed to be a military commander, and tell the unvarnished truth, regardless of what's politically convenient for his boss, President Bush. General Patraeus is repeating the political hack-lines of the White House, or "cooking the books" for them, and thus betraying the trust the American people put in him. He is also betraying the American spirit by giving into President Bush's desire to politicize war, peace, and the military itself.
  2. Betraying the Military: When you politicize the military, you undermine the service of our troops, who serve a great nation, not a political agenda. By propping up the White House line contrary to the truth on the ground, the General is dishonoring and betraying the sacrifice of our troops.
  3. Politicizing War: This is a derivative of the first two points. Cooking the books for political purposes by a military general isn't just disgusting, it threatens the fabric of our democracy. When a military commander spins matters of conflict, the country and the Congress has an impediment in our way of learning the truth - so that we may govern ourselves. Cooking the political books, therefore, by a military commander, is immoral.
But, you say, aren't the conservatives actually trying to reframe by saying it is Moveon.org that's politicizing the military by maligning the service of a decorated general? Trying, yes. But failing. Failing because every time they try to bring up the matter, either they themselves, or the media, in order to report the context, bring that ad back, reinforcing our frame. So their very attempts to reframe are backfiring. They cannot make their framing take hold if MoveOn's framing is in there every step of the way. And that's the brilliance of MoveOn.org.

What of the Senate condemnation, you say. Sure, it would have been better if the Democrats in the Senate didn't become so spineless, but look at it from the framing and message point of view. The Senate cannot actually do anything about the ad, since it is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The only thing they can do is pass non-binding resolutions condemning it. What happens when the US Senate condemns an ad? You guessed it. It becomes news! That means it gets on newspapers, TV, the Internet, everywhere. And there is no way to report the condemnation without actually repeating the ad, and thus spreading the reach of the message and reinforcing the frame. So all the Republicans really did was shoot themselves in the foot and make the MoveOn frame perpetuate in the public consciousness. To that end, we should almost be thankful to them.