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Top GOP pollster Frank Luntz talks about Bill Clinton’s bridge, Newt Gingrich’s popularity, why Republicans aren’t funny, and how teaching at Penn was the happiest time of his life.

With nary a President and but one Supreme Court Justice to its credit, Penn has never been much for producing politicos. Which makes the achievements of Frank Luntz, C’84, all the more remarkable.

Called “one of the most brilliant young political figures in America today” by The Wall Street Journal and hailed as “one of the top three strategists who combined to engineer the Republican blowout [of 1994]” by Newsweek, at thirty-four Luntz is one of the most influential people in the nation’s capital.
As a pollster, he generally operates behind the scenes. But as the Republican party’s premiere pollster, Luntz is behind almost every scene in the play now
being staged by the Grand Old Party’s Congressional Company. “If he has an ‘R’ after his name, I probably work for him in some capacity,” Luntz says without jest. Acting as the “pollster of record” for the Contract with America, Luntz was partially the brainsand fully the eyes and earsbehind the Contract’s relative success. Says he of his role as the document’s messenger and wordsmith, “Of all the things I have done in politics, this is the one I am the most proud of.”

Although Luntz graduated in 1984, his last days at the University were in 1993, at which time he was a controversial adjunct assistant professor of political science. I was a freshman then, and before I could enroll in his immensely popular class, it was cancelled. He had moved to Washington to leadand cash in onthe coming Republican Revolution, an event he had predicted on John McLaughlin’s “One on One” months before it happened (proving himself worthy of his 1992 Washington Post-bestowed title of “Most Accurate Pundit”).

As a fellow Republican Washingtonian and one of the few politically successful University grads, Luntz intrigued me, and I was pleased when he accepted my invitation to discuss Penn, politics, and Penn politics. We met in January, between President Clinton’s inauguration and his State of the Union speech.

How do you think the new Republican Congress will get along with Bill Clinton over the next few years?
I think it’s going to be in many ways a tortured relationship. Bill Clinton sounds like a conservative and governs like a liberal. He talks about the same issues and in the same waythat Republicans do, but the actual legislation he produces is quite different. Republicans, quite frankly, have some trouble trusting the president. They don’t think he’s sincere. They don’t think he negotiates in good faith. Both sides earnestly want to achieve good for the country. And I do believe that Clinton wants to leave his mark on history, which I think makes it likely that we will achieve some legislative success in the next four years.

Nevertheless, he is impossible to pin down. When they asked Clinton on MTV whether he wore briefs or boxers, do you remember what his response was? “Usually boxers.” Usually. Even on underwear the guy equivocates.

Also, Clinton has some personal problems to sort out. When people chanted Four more years! at his inauguration, I think they were talking about his prison sentence, not his term of office.

Bill Maher of “Politically Incorrect” recently quipped that in his bid for re-election, Bill Clinton sold us a bridge. As much as you dislike Clinton, you must admire his rhetorical and political skill.

First of all, the problem with Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century is that it is a toll bridge, an expensive toll bridge, and Ted Kennedy is our driver, and I don’t want to end up in the river.

Bill Clinton capitalizes on one of the major problems with politics in America. He claims to be doing things for the greater good, and he feels as though that allows him to do anything. And he seems to be right. The Clinton administration has hurt more people personally, has used character assassination to destroy more opponents, than even Nixon dreamed of, and yet he gets away with it because he’s got this higher moral tone about it. It disgusts me, it really does.

What about Bob Dole? Why don’t we have a President Dole today?
There was a joke that went around Washington that Bob Dole was so old it took him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes. It pains me to say this, but the electoral problem with Bob Dole was that he is from a generation that considered morality and ethics foremost. Unfortunately, the swing voters of 1996 were people in their 30s who care less about ethics, less about morality, and more about what’s in it for them. And Bill Clinton communicated to them.

Also, Dole was not a good communicator and didn’t improve during the campaign. And he didn’t use humor and ridicule sufficiently, which hurt him.

Isn’t being funny a problem for most Republican politicians?
Unfortunately, yes. Republicans are all-too-accurately perceived as stodgy and dour, but they don’t need to be. I’ll give you two examples of targets for humor which they missed:

In his crime bill, Clinton wanted $18 million for midnight basketball. But two years later, he called for a 10 p.m. curfew. Think about that. Ten o’clock curfew, hoops at twelve. It doesn’t make sense, and Republicans could have used that to great effect.

The education legislation that he called for would have spent millions of dollars to close caption the TV show Baywatch. But who tunes in to Baywatch for the dialogue? It’s a bunch of people wearing swim suits who jiggle from one side of the screen to the other. If you close-caption it, you’re blocking off 40 percent of the screen! The deaf won’t even be able to see what they came for.

Anyway, when I work with Republicans on their speeches, I try to lighten them up like this.

It is said about statistics that if you torture them long enough, they’ll confess to just about anything. Isn’t this true of polls as well?
How long did it take you to write that question? Well, there are good polls and bad polls, and often polls can be misleading. The key lies in the methodology. The job of a pollster is to explain the who, what, when, where, and why of the constituency to the elected official, and to help the elected official explain the who, what, when, where, and why of legislation to the constituency. Pollsters assist in communication, we play middlemen in that process, but we do not substitute our own policies, and we do not substitute public opinion for substance. I’ve never known a candidate to change his or her point of view because a poll showed that one view was popular and another one wasn’t.

What about the 2000 campaign? According to one of your polls, 73 percent of Americans believe government is too large. Yet Al Gore, the de facto Democratic candidate, reveres government. To an American populace that claims to want much less government, how appealing will Gore be?
About as appealing and expressive as a redwood tree.

And who would you like to see challenge Gore on the Republican side?
Virtually anybody. My favorites are those who communicate effectively with the next generation of Americans. We have a large crop of very effective, visionary leaders we can run.

For the next few years, which issues do you see as winners for the Republicans, and for the Democrats? What about abortion?
I don’t like to look at winners and losers in a partisan framework because most Americans are now post-partisanthey don’t want to talk about things in terms of Republican or Democrat, or even liberal and conservative. They want to be able to pick and choose the best solutions to problems.
I think education is going to be the number one issue over the next three years, and Social Security and Medicare will also be at the forefront.
Abortion is the one issue where there is no compromise, where there is no middle ground. The vast majority of Americans are pro-choice and anti-abortion. I don’t know what’s going to happen with this issue.

You are close friends with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He’s had some problems lately. Will he survive? What’s the spin?
It’s not spinning! Newt is the most controversial politician of his age because he is the most significant.

I’ve had the opportunity to get to know him on a very personal basis, to spend weekends with him flying around the country. He is the equivalent of the the greatest professor I have ever had. He’s the greatest mind I’ve ever met. And even those who disagree with his politics at the most fundamental level acknowledge that he is the most brilliant political figure they’ve come in contact with, and that he is absolutely the best listener around. Of course, he’s also the most controversial figure of his age, because you simply cannot change the culture of this city, as he is doing, without breaking a few eggs.

Newt Gingrich in November of 1994 shook this place to its very core, and now this place is getting even. It’s unfortunate that he made mistakes, but I believe he will survive. He’s just too significant. Without him there would be no Republican majority.

He does have a slight popularity problem, right now, I will admit. The latest polls indicate that he’s only about five points more popular than the Unabomber and a mere two points ahead of the Ebola virus.

You were Ross Perot’s pollster for his first presidential campaign, but you are not a fan of third parties. Can you explain?
I worked for Perot because he was shorter than I was, and that mattered to me at the time. I can’t say I’m any taller now, but I am more mature, and I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

I want the Republican party to represent the hopes and concerns of the Perot constituency. I want the Republican party to remain a grassroots party, to be a party that understand working class Americans. As long as the Republican party isn’t dominated by country clubbers, as long as it has the feel of the American people, I don’t think a third party is necessary.

Let’s talk about our alma mater. Few would dispute that Penn is politically liberal. Do you think, though, that it is even more liberal now than when you were an undergraduate?
It is sad for me to admit that as left-wing as I thought Penn was, I realize now that it was only Wharton’s influence that has kept Penn from becoming as extreme as its Ivy League brothers and sisters.

Churchill made that often-quoted statement that if you’re not a liberal at age twenty you have no heart, but if you’re not a conservative at age forty you have no brains. So it doesn’t concern me that the student body is liberal. What does concern me is that the professors are so leftist at a time when so many of their views have been discredited by what has happened nationally and internationally.

Your own Penn teaching career ended several years ago. What are your fondest memories of it?
It was the happiest time of my life without a doubt. The classes that I taught in 1992-’93 were with students that gave me nachusthat’s Yiddish for pride. They were bright, energetic, thoughtful, and tough. I taught a course called Current Conflicts in American Society. It was a three hour class, but it often ran much longer, and it was extremely popular. Kids would come up to me begging to get in and I couldn’t tell them no.

I’m most proud of the time I took a dozen students up to New Hampshire to see firsthand what was going on in the primaries. They got to meet every presidential candidate, they got to have lunch with Hillary Clinton, they got to ask questions at real press conferences, they got to hang out with noted journalists. They got in that four days a better education about politics than any poli sci texbook could ever give.

Is it true that your class was popular with the students but not with Penn’s faculty?
Yes. My unorthodox methods did get me into some trouble with my colleagues. They claimed I was non-academic. They claimed I was too much of an entertainer. They claimed that I wasn’t serious. But there are parts of politics that, if you didn’t approach them with a bit of humor and distance, would be impossible to teach. Things happen in Washington that are sometimes hard to understand, that are a little incomprehensible, and often in a very negative way. Lobbying and the role of money in politics, for example, are not always pleasant to discuss. I tried to approach these subjects in a way that would teach the kids the truth, but would not turn them off to a life of government service.

What does the future hold for you?
Well, I haven’t been in front of a classroom for two years and I look forward to doing that again more than you can imagine. Even the Contract, even working with Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott doesn’t compare to the joy I felt teaching. I loved Penn and still do.

JEREMY HILDRETH, W’96, a former fiscal policy researcher at the Cato Institute, is presently seeking a job on Wall Street.

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