Frank Luntz is a scientist of the political variety. But he stands to influence the debate over global warming, adding his voice to the climatologists who believe the problem is man made in ways that could speak to lingering skeptics on Capitol Hill.
I interviewed Luntz recently, and he appeared ready to commit not only his professional expertise, but also his personal conviction to the conversation.
Click Below To Listen To A Clip Of Michael Smerconish's Interview With Frank Luntz
He's certainly made his mark on the political lexicon before. Luntz is the wordsmith who coined the term "death tax" to replace the vague notion of an estate tax. In his world, vouchers are better known as "opportunity scholarships" and offshore oil drilling is better expressed as "deep-sea energy exploration." And he's the man who once advised the Bush administration to emphasize the "lack of scientific certainty" in the global warming debate.
So I was especially eager to catch up with him after his recently released research indicating that 57 percent of Americans believe global warming is "definitely" or "probably" occurring and 64 percent believe it's "definitely" or "probably" caused at least in part by humans. His findings, announced alongside Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, also showed that the country supports significant climate change legislation for several diverse reasons.
It seemed as though Luntz might have changed his tune on the subject. So I asked directly: Where did he stand on the issue?
"I think that the weakest part of the climate change argument in terms of legislation is climate change itself," he told me. He emphasized the importance of accompanying an environmental message by saying that the United States should decrease dependence on Middle Eastern oil. And that the country should prioritize achieving cleaner, safer energy sources. And that climate change overhaul would generate American jobs and build new technologies rather than outsourcing that work to China or India. Luntz concluded: "I have come to support climate legislation not because of the science of climate change," he said, "but because of all the other benefits that it would provide."
Nobody could argue with his framing of the issue — and I told him so. But his answer was surprising, so I pressed him: Is he a believer in the concept of man-made global warming or not?
"It doesn't matter whether it exists or not," he answered, adding, a moment later: "What my position is on that issue and what anyone's position is actually doesn't matter when it comes to legislation." Why not? Because "getting hung up" on the questions regarding the underlying science, Luntz expounded, wasn't as productive for climate legislation supporters as focusing on "the economic benefits, the health benefits, the national security benefits, in addition to the environmental benefits."
Even legislation that includes cap-and-trade? He answered that "cap and trade" is "the worst language," suggesting that whoever coined the term "should have their knees decapitated."
"I have come to support climate legislation not because of the science of climate change," Luntz said, "but because of all the other benefits that it would provide."
His dismissal of the relevance of global warming science seemed at odds with a conversation we'd had earlier about health-care reform.
I shared with him my longstanding belief that the Obama administration erred in adopting the language of "single payer" and "public option" to define the proposed health-care policy. Luntz refused to bite, remaining focused on policy when I was seeking to engage him on a matter of semantics. He noted that the term "public option" suggests low quality, inefficient care.
"But I have to say one thing," he continued. "When you call it a 'public option' or a 'personal option,' the public does not support a government takeover of health care. And the problem with the public option is that it involves government making decisions. Look, the American people hate insurance companies, make no mistake. But they also don't trust Washington bureaucrats either."
So if President Obama had sought his opinion, what would Luntz have called it? He had to have wondered, I surmised aloud. Still wouldn't bite.
"It's true, and I do think of what the other side might call it. But I have to say that there are some things in life that you feel so strongly about that you're willing to risk your business, you're willing to risk some income, you're willing to risk, in essence, your reputation because you want to see something happen or not happen. And this is one of those cases," he said.
"So quite frankly, I never put myself in the president's shoes when it came to health care because I just fundamentally feel that while we absolutely need changes to the health care system, I fundamentally feel that what they were suggesting was so wrong that even in the darkness of night I never thought to myself, 'What would I do if I wanted to pass this bill?'"
The more I wanted to talk the semantics of health care, the more he focused on policy. "My business isn't just language," he said a moment later. "My business has to be policy because if the language doesn't match the policy, you end up getting destroyed."
But when the subject shifted to global warming, the opposite was true.
I told Luntz that I was trying to gauge the extent to which he was stepping out of the GOP box on the climate issue.
"I'm not sure if it's me stepping out of the box. But I'm encouraging people to look at this not as a Republican or Democratic issue, that this is not a liberal or conservative issue. If you are right of center, your No. 1 reason for supporting the legislation is American national security. If you are a Democrat, a liberal, supporting this legislation, your No. 1 focus is both on health and on the environment. And if you are in the center, your No. 1 focus is jobs."
"There is something in this legislation for everyone," he continued. "And the problem with the phrase 'cap and trade' and the problem with focusing on whether there is or isn't climate change is that you miss the bigger point — that these can be jobs that will stay in this country forever. This can be technology such as we created in the space race."
I told Luntz that I believed he could add even more heft to his linguistic deftness in support of global warming legislation if he were a conservative who acknowledges the science behind global warming as well as the collateral benefits to addressing it. What conservative legal giant Ted Olson has become for gay marriage proponents, Frank Luntz could be for climate change believers, I thought to myself.
Which is what finally turned Frank Luntz on global warming.
Here's how the conversation ended:
Smerconish: I feel that the bigger headline would be a headline that says Republican pollster Frank Luntz believes in man-made climate change and global warming, and is making the argument that even for those who don't, there's a case to be made that we've got to make changes. But it doesn't sound like that headline is yet to be written.
Luntz: You can write that headline. The only problem with that headline is that it emphasizes what I believe —
Smerconish: —Right, but you've got credentials on the right side of the aisle. I for one would pay attention to what you say.
Luntz: Well then write that headline. There you go.
Consider it done.
Michael Smerconish is a nationally syndicated radio host. His latest book, Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the 20th Hijacker , was published last month.