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Framing, Russia and the US Election

Russia just voted to recognize the independence of two regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

As background, Georgia claims these regions are part of its own territory, although it has also treated the breakaway republics as being de facto independent since the 1990s. The UN and other bodies encourage Georgia to continue dealing with these two regions diplomatically, which seems to acknowledge their status as valid independent negotiating entities. In short, the issue is truly unresolved.

But criticism of Russia's move around the world is muted because the United States led a similar initiative to recognize Kosovo's independence, which was declared on February 18 -- to much controversy, given that this was seen by many as an attempt to shift Kosovo from a traditional Russian alignment to a NATO/US alignment. 

In a way, Russia's move to geld Georgia is a way of punishing Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili, and in another way, it's a poke in the eye of the United States, which has been perceived by Russia (probably correctly) as the architect of a restraint policy. With the Russia/EU split in Ukraine, a Western-leaning Georgia and now missiles going into Poland, Russia is feeling as though it has to play some chess moves.  By recognizing the autonomy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (partly protected by Russian troops as a bulwark against Georgian incursions), Russia has taken advantage of the moral high ground many believe the US (and hence Georgia) ceded with the Kosovo recognition.

The frame in political terms here is "fair is fair." The US is largely hamstrung on the issue. Any outrage would now be seen as hollow, or -- worse -- hypocritical. 

This frame works because the United States needs to present itself to its own citizens as being sincere and plain-dealing. If this issue were not part of a US government initiative to isolate Russia in US public opinion, then Russia's frame would lose a lot of its power. Frankly, the United States over the years has had a free hand in being insincere or obscure in its dealings with other countries. (The United States is not alone in this -- after all, the German word realpolitik has been conspicuously a part of our foreign policy DNA since Henry Kissinger's days.) But when the US needs to convince the American people that it's doing something based on ideals, it needs a believable frame. Russia has exploited the Kosovo declaration for both tactical and strategic purposes, because the United States has chosen a weak frame.

Now, to the US election. 

Have you noticed how, in the last several presidential election cycles, somehow gay marriage has bubbled to the surface immediately prior to the election? Why is this? My own view is that the conservatives in our country believe that gay marriage is a divisive moral issue that helps them preserve their social conservative base, and by carefully managing the state legislative agendas, they can get states to at least bring up the issue -- and ideally to pass pro-gay-marriage laws -- so that it plays in the national press. The frame they want to use: Marriage is a traditional ritual between man and woman, for the purpose of creating a family. The frame that progressives and liberals want to use (but cannot gain traction for): Marriage is a civil right. Conservative political strategists want this issue to come up, particularly in a legislative context, because it puts our very laws "at risk" of being tainted by ... fill in the blanks -- the tactic is fear-mongering at its worst, in my view.

I won't go into my own views on how progressives and liberals should change their strategy. That's for another posting.

What I want to do here is to warn progressives about another frame that's being introduced, and it will bite the Democratics in the rear if they don't start thinking about it. That topic is underage drinking -- right now framed in the press as reducing binge drinking by lowering the drinking age.

Think about how this is going to play out. If Obama supports it, social conservatives will rally to McCain. He might preserve some of his youth vote, but Obama had better be sure how young people really feel about changing the drinking age. If Obama comes out against it, you can bet that conservatives will say that he doesn't trust American youth, and that he's a hypocrite, since he drank and used drugs as a young man.

And you can hardly be called anything worse in America than a hypocrite. (See the Russia story above.)

So, what do I recommend for the Democrats?

Simply this: Nothing is more important for the future of our country than the health and well-being of our youth. We should not lower the drinking age without looking at the overall risks. And we cannot craft the best solution by leaving families out of the conversation. 

This frame has the merits of being based in values: patience, family, collaboration. The story is probably one of the government being a mentor to the real hero (the family). This shifts the government from the role that conservatives might prefer: the gatekeeper or -- even worse -- the villain. 

It will be worth watching to see how this is going to play out in the next few months. Of course, I could be wrong that the drinking age issue is a stalking horse designed to pull the Obama campaign into a lose-lose situation. We'll see!

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