Monday, August 11, 2008

Drill Here, Drill Now: Return of Cage and Frame

As if we didn't know it would return. The rhetorical trick called "cage and frame" is used when a politician has an entire subject he wants to keep from discussing, hiding it safely out of view in a rhetorical cage.

Candidates usually take their cue from magicians by employing a tactic of misdirection – hey, look over there, it’s someone burning a flag while taking the Ten Commandments from a courthouse. This move, what logicians call a “red herring,” is generally effective. But if the topic is urgent, a more sophisticated bit of sophistry is required.

The cage and frame stratagem is to open the cage just enough to let out one token part of the issue in order to make it appear that the topic as a whole is being fairly discussed. The key is to select the tiny corner of the complex concern most easily framed to your advantage, and then discuss it, and it alone, as vociferously as possible. Your opponent now faces a dilemma. If he chooses not to give a full-throated rebuttal, the lack of passion validates the charge in the mind of the public, think John Kerry and the Swift Boat attacks.

Alternatively, you could take the bait, engaging the issue forcefully. The respondent now sounds defensive while arguing from the opponent’s preferred conceptual framework and phrasing. But more importantly, the engagement directs all attention away from the crucial parts of the topic that remain locked away in the cage. The spirited debate concerning this side issue leads the broader public to wrongly infer that they are hearing an open debate about the matter as a whole. If this one issue was not the most important aspect of the question, they reason, why would both sides spend such time and energy arguing so vehemently? In the zero sum game of political coverage, the important elements of the topic will be ignored, exactly as desired.

In the face of spiking gas prices, energy policy affects voters personally, as well as the larger economy and national security. The conversation surrounding this multifaceted subject now includes only the expansion of drilling rights. Further exploration would not bring a single drop of oil to market for several years, making it irrelevant to the current concerns, but never mind because the larger debate about energy independence is off the table. Wind? Nuclear? Conservation? Global Warming? Cap and trade? Gone – successfully trapped in the rhetorical cage once everyone is laser focused on off-shore drilling. "Drill here! drill now!" Cage the energy debate here! Frame it now!

Similarly, with the hand wringing over whether Dems, particularly Obama, will admit that the surge has worked. By making this the sole issue of discussion in foreign policy, everything else – judgments concerning the threat from a pre-war Iraq, the prosecution of the wars, the abandonment of Afghanistan and what to do now in Iraq, Iran, the West Bank and Gaza, North Korea – has vanished without a trace into the rhetorical cage because of a non-issue in a partisan frame.

We are played like rubes in a game of rhetorical three-card monty. The dealer knows where the real debate is, but no matter how we try to follow the cards, we are always shown something else. In this very important election year, we need to unlock the cage for a truly open political debate. We need all of the cards on the table.