A conservative political action committee known for its slick but often controversial political advertisements is planning a new ad accusing President Barack Obama of using "scare words" to manipulate voters.
The National Republican Trust PAC, founded in 2008 by former investigative journalist Scott Wheeler, is the same group that released an ad four years ago slamming Obama for his ties to former pastor Jeremiah Wright, as well as the "Kill Ground Zero Mosque" ads in 2010 opposing the construction of a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now, Wheeler tells Whispers NRTPAC is preparing to release an ad he believes can sway independent voters over their lack of trust in the president. The ad alleges that Obama and his fellow Democrats rely heavily on "scare words," or poll-tested language designed to scare voters about Republicans in their speeches.
"We're going to show clips of Obama and other Democrats saying the same words over and over again," says Wheeler, "and then say: 'Do you ever wonder why you're hearing the same thing over and again? That's because these words have been tested. They are used to manipulate you into voting for them.'"
Wheeler cites "extremists" as an example of a Democratic scare word. He believes Democrats also use the phrase "reproductive freedom" to scare women into believing Republicans want to take away their reproductive rights.
According to Wheeler, Democrats have conducted polls that found the word "extremist" tests better than "radical" in describing Republicans to independent voters. Whispers was not able to independently verify that polling.
Politicians have used polled phrases to frame their political message for at least a decade, and the use of scare words may have started with Republicans.
In a recent interview with the monthly liberal magazine The Progressive, former Wisconsin congressman Dave Obey, a Republican-turned-Democrat, said that Newt Gingrich was a originator of the practice.
"When he came to the Congress in 1978, he started running classes to teach people how to tear down their opponents personally, not just politically," Obey told The Progressive. "They published bulletins called 'How to Talk Like Newt,' and they urged people to use words like 'festering,' 'decay,' and 'sick' in order to undermine the political opposition,"
Wheeler argues that no matter who started the practice, Democrats are now clearly doing it, too. NRTPAC plans to release the new ad on national airwaves starting next week, with a concentration in swing states. "We're going to take some of their [Obama and other Democrats'] words and expose them as being words of manipulation," says Wheeler. "I think it will stir up a lot of controversy."
The statement is greeeted with laughter by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, whose ideas are believed to have shaped some of Obama's speeches.
"First, extremist is mild compared to what the Republicans are using," says Lakoff, citing the Republican party's usage of scare words like "socialist," "government takeover," and "Obamacare." "And women's right to choose is not exactly a scare word. It's a positive claim and actually a very ineffective slogan... But I'm glad the right wing thinks it is."
Lakoff says he is unaware of any political ads that have touched on this topic before, but hopes the ad is spread "very far and wide."
"The ad will help the Democrats," says Lakoff. "By saying extremist, [the ad] raises the question of whether Republicans are extremist. It's the question Democrats want out there about Republicans."