Why not? I ask. Isn't finding the right words to persuade people what you do? "I'm not good enough," Luntz says. "And I hate that. I have come to the extent of my capabilities. And this is not false modesty. I think I'm pretty good. But not good enough." The old Frank Luntz was sure he could invent slogans to sell the righteous conservative path of personal responsibility and free markets to anyone. The new Frank Luntz fears that is no longer the case, and it's driving him crazy.
* * *
Luntz has a squat build, a big slab of a face, and a mop of light-brown hair. His affect is by turns boyish and hangdog. People meeting him for the first time always comment on the loud sneakers he typically pairs with slacks or a suit. This is by design: He began wearing them, he says, to divert people's attention from his considerable girth. He found he enjoyed collecting designer sneakers, and now has more than 100 pairs—all of which he wears, even though some are rare editions worth more than $1,000. Luntz is a collector. Before moving to Las Vegas this month, he spent most of his free time in a $6 million mansion in Los Angeles crammed with American political artifacts and politically themed decor. It also has a bowling alley. Luntz's house in Northern Virginia is similarly crammed, but with pop-culture collectibles. (He also keeps an apartment in New York City.)
Luntz lives alone. Never married, he tells me he is straight (and that no reporter has ever asked him about his sexual orientation before), just unable to sustain a romantic relationship because of all the time he spends on the road. "My parents were married for 47 years. I'm never in the same place more than 47 minutes," he says. When I point out he's chosen that lifestyle, he says, "You sound like my relatives."
Luntz did political polling for Pat Buchanan's 1992 primary campaign and Ross Perot's independent presidential bid, but he became truly famous when he hitched his star to Newt Gingrich, helping draft the Contract With America and advising Gingrich's crusading Republican majority. He considers Gingrich and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another former client, his most important political mentors. In the '90s, he became known as the man who could sell any political message by picking the right words. "Estate tax" sounds worthy and the right thing for a democracy to do, but "death tax" sounds distasteful and unfair. "Global warming" sounds scary, but "climate change" sounds natural or even benign. Luntz became a well-compensated speaker, TV commentator, and convener of on-camera focus groups, which he led with manic curiosity to shed light on what the people really thought about political debates and presidential speeches. "It's not what you say," goes his oft-repeated slogan, "it's what they hear."
Luntz is famous not just on television—he has talking-head contracts with both CBS and Fox News, a rare arrangement—but among the political and business elite. When he walks into the Capitol Hill Club, he is beset by Republican members of Congress wanting to talk to him and soak up his aura of celebrity. He boasts that he speaks to at least one Fortune 500 CEO every day. Yet, in his telling, he is still the little guy, the outsider, the schlub—half anxious, half awed by the trappings of power. He tells of being summoned for a conversation with Bill Clinton and being unable to enjoy the honor of the occasion because of the panic he felt at the president's vise grip on his shoulder. "This is Bill fucking Clinton, asking me to deliver a message to the Senate majority leader, and I'm about to faint," he recalls, ruefully. "Because I understand the significance of this conversation, and I am not worthy of it."
Luntz's work has always been predicated on a sort of populism—the idea that politicians must figure out what voters want to hear, and speak to them in language that comports with it. He proudly claims that his famous catchphrases, like branding healthcare reform a "government takeover" in 2010, are not his coinages but the organic product of his focus groups. The disheveled appearance, the sardonic wit, all add up to a sort of tilting against the establishment, an insistence that it listen to the Real People.
But what if the Real People are wrong? That is the possibility Luntz now grapples with. What if the things people want to hear from their leaders are ideas that would lead the country down a dangerous road?
"You should not expect a handout," he tells me. "You should not even expect a safety net. When my house burns down, I should not go to the government to rebuild it. I should have the savings, and if I don't, my neighbors should pitch in for me, because I would do that for them." The entitlement he now hears from the focus groups he convenes amounts, in his view, to a permanent poisoning of the electorate—one that cannot be undone. "We have now created a sense of dependency and a sense of entitlement that is so great that you had, on the day that he was elected, women thinking that Obama was going to pay their mortgage payment, and that's why they voted for him," he says. "And that, to me, is the end of what made this country so great."
To my ears, this sounds like rather standard-issue up-by-your-bootstraps conservative dogma. But to Luntz, it not a matter of left or right. He periodically comes under attack from the right for not toeing the Republican line, and has been critical of the party's right wing. "It seems like the Democrats are going so far overboard, and the Republicans are going nowhere," he tells me. "So I'm mad at both of them." Increasingly, he says, he seeks to maintain relationships with members of both parties. His closest friendship in politics today, he says, is with a Democrat, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (disclosure: Bennet is the brother of Atlantic editor in chief James Bennet). "It's not weird," Luntz says. "He's just a decent guy. We play foosball."