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."
Luntz's political ideas, as far as I can tell, amount to a sort of Perotian rich man's centrism, the type of thing you might hear from a Morning Joe panel or a CEOs' retreat. We've got to do something about the deficit, for our children's sake. We ought to have universal healthcare, but without forcing people to buy insurance through the government. We need immigration reform, but that doesn't have to include a path to citizenship. The bankers who contributed to the financial crisis ought to be in jail, but we ought to stop demonizing the financial-services industry. To the tycoons who embrace them, these kinds of ideas are not partisan or ideological at all. They're the common-sense plans we'd all be able to agree on if Congress would stop bickering and devote itself to Getting Things Done.
Most of all, Luntz says, he wishes we would stop yelling at one another. Luntz dreams of drafting some of the rich CEOs he is friends with to come up with a plan for saving America from its elected officials. "The politicians have failed; now it's up to the business community to stand up and be heard," he tells me. "I want the business community to step up." Having once thought elites needed to listen to regular people, he now wants the people to learn from their moneyed betters.
Luntz's populism has turned on itself and become its opposite: fear and loathing of the masses. "I am grateful that Occupy Wall Street turned out to be a bunch of crazy, disgusting, rude, horrible people, because they were onto something," he says. "Limbaugh made fun of me when I said that Occupy Wall Street scares me. Because he didn't hear what I hear. He doesn't see what I see." The people are angry. They want more, not because we have not given them enough but because we have given them too much.
* * *
Luntz is not sure what to do with his newfound awareness. He's still best known for his political resume, but politics hasn't been his principal business for some time: He still advises his friends here and there, but he no longer has any ongoing political contracts. (Corporations and television networks, not politicians, are his main sources of income.) He goes to as many NFL games as he can, where he sits in the owner's box courtesy of onetime client Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, with whom he has developed a close rapport. "I don't like this. I don't like this," he says, meaning D.C., the schmoozing, the negativity, the division. At football games, "People are happy, families are barbecuing outside, people are playing pitch and toss. A little too much beer, but you can't have everything. They're just happy and they're celebrating with each other and it's such a mix of people." The first week of football season, he went to four games in eight days: Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, and then Sunday again.