Lessons from Huckabee: Framing the Debate

A few days ago, Mike Huckabee (former Governor of Arkansas, GOP
presidential contender, and Evangelical Christian) was a guest on “On Point,” an NPR show based in
Boston. Huckabee was plugging his new book, Do the Right
, reflecting on the election and taking calls from

Huckabee, for those who haven’t heard or seen him, is incredibly
affable. If he talks in generalities for too long, you can forget
just how right-wing many of his specific views are. After ten
minutes or so of growing increasingly frightened by how likable the
guy is, I lightened up when the show received an unusual call.


The caller, seemingly a middle-aged man, started by saying that he
likes Huckabee, is with him on national security and other issues
important to the nation, and so forth, that he wants to support
him, but then paused. What came next?

I should be with you, Governor Huckabee, but you see I’m

The caller went out to talk about his partner of 22 years and how
if only conservative politicians like Huckabee could stop denying
same-sex couples their basic right to have their relationships
recognized and protected, many gay voters could support him.


Oh, how quickly Huckabee shifted from the affable, concerned guy
from “Middle of the Road, USA” to consummate politician framing the
debate in ways that neutralized the substantive, emotional and
personal points the caller was trying to make.

Huckabee began his answer by flatly denying that he is at all “hung
up” on the caller’s relationship. Then, he:

  • Said he thinks people should be able to live freely (free =
    safe word for conservative politician responding to questions like
  • Said that hospital visitation is okay (plays to the
    emotional piece)
  • And then said, “but this is where I draw the line.”

In other words, I (the moral majority) tolerate you to a certain
extent (which makes me feel good about myself), and I have the
authority to draw important societal lines.Okay, so far he sounds
reasonable, engaging, authoritative–makes sense. So what’s this
important societal line he’s going to draw for us?

That’s right, you guessed it: I draw the line at redefining the
institution of marriage. 


Why is the definition of marriage as “between one man and one
woman” so important? Why is it so wrong to “redefine

HUCKABEE: “Making marriage mean something
different than it has historically and always meant, which is a
male-female relationship that not only creates the next
generation but trains the next generation
to become their
replacements.” (emphasis added and directly quoted from an audio

Communications analysts could write a book on this single, tiny
soundbite. That’s how crafty it is. Now am I suggesting that
Huckabee wrote it out in advance? Of course not. That’s what
practice and political skill is all about. He’s so good about being
the messenger for his overall point-of-view (his platform, if you
will) that he can create these subtle, yet loaded messages on the

(Spoiler Alert: That’s what we need–not just among our
professional advocates, but among all of you.)

What do people who continue to be “afraid” of LGBT people always
say about why it’s wrong for us to exist, wrong for us to get
married, and especially wrong for us to have kids?

That we’re going to recruit and train the next generation
of LGBT people!

By inverting that age-old message (i.e., We need straight
couples to raise children so they teach these children to be
straight and therefore reproduce
) Huckabee activated the tired
stereotype about people training children to be sexually one way or
the other, implied that LGBT people raising children would only
create more LGBT people, and by extension implied that LGBT people
cannot raise families and/or reproduce.

That’s right, no joke, he did all of that in a second without
actually coming right out and saying it. And, really, without
sounding like much of a bigot at all. (Maybe to our ears he sounds
a little like a bigot, but I bet you donuts to dollars that answer
didn’t ring discriminatory to the Average Joe.)


The Right has been the leader in framing social issues for at least
thirty years. The early twentieth century (though, in detail, it
doesn’t always look like it) was a period dominated by liberal
ideas–expansion of government and services, (gradual) expansion of
civil rights, the beginnings of the Green movement, the women’s
movement, the LGBT movement, peace movements, etc. The Right
organized back then and began heavily funding think tanks and
academics who could help hone their rhetoric and positions for
years to come.

With boundless resources they have been incredibly successful at
framing these debates and turning public opinion (see the 1980s).
Those of us targeted by their rhetoric have fought for our
communities, trying to advance positive change, while constantly
being attacked. We are just now in the last five years or so really
beginning to gain ground on the messaging front, which is key to
achieving equality and creating the world we all want to live

BACK TO THE CALL, or (the) DIAGNOSIS (of a message)

The caller (not to pick on him too much) gave Huckabee an easy out
by clumsily equating “getting over our relationship” with “allowing
us to marry.” The Right has rhetorically (if not politically)
separated the issue of “marriage” from bestowing “equal rights” to
same-sex couples for years. Many Americans are used to thinking
that civil unions, domestic partnerships, etc., are the equal
rights part of the equation, and marriage is just “those gays
asking for more things they don’t need again.”

Now I don’t want to play Monday Morning Quarterback, here, but if
the caller had said, for instance, “I’m with you on so many issues,
Governor Huckabee, but what I don’t understand is why your new book
is titled Do the Right Thing when you can’t do
the right thing by the millions of gay and lesbian Americans who
need marriage–not civil unions, not domestic
partnerships–to truly enjoy the rights, benefits and protections
that only marriage can afford all people equally. You believe in
equal treatment under the law, don’t you, Governor Huckabee?”

As good as he is on the spot, Huckabee still might have countered
skillfully, but he couldn’t have started with the rhetorical
sledgehammer, “I’m okay with your relationship,” i.e., who cares
what you do in your own bedroom, “but I’m not okay with you
hijacking marriage, which doesn’t belong to your kind.”

To sound reasonable and affable, which is his goal, Huckabee would
probably have had to just agree to disagree and leave it at that.
But here’s the thing: In moments like these, whether Huckabee
changes his position on air or not is not the issue. It’s whether
that caller truly got his message across to the thousands of people
listening. What do they walk away with? A person who said, “Why are
you so hung up on our relationship,” or a person who said,
“Marriage is how we truly achieve equality. Period, Amen”?


Huckabee’s exemplary framing on LGBT issues was not limited to
marriage in this exchange. The caller was given a chance to respond
to Huckabee’s answer. He tried to expand on the issue of equality
and the Right’s obsession with attacking LGBT people, which could
have been effective, but he didn’t provide any forward context to
the subjects he brought up.

Case in point: The caller talked about how
“Republicans” (his word, not mine) say they’re for equal treatment
(like Huckabee did–OK, I’m with you, keep going…) but
when it comes to issues other than marriage they “never” step up
(which isn’t true, but Huckabee left that alone). The caller
mentioned hate crimes in particular, but as part of a list, not
with any specific framing around the subject. So Huckabee, in true
form, countered skillfully:

HUCKABEE: “The fundamental question you have to
raise then at that point is are you punishing people for their
thoughts? I think the fact that you strike somebody and that you
violently attack them is what should give you consequences in the
criminal justice system…I’m a little concerned about getting to
this place in our culture where we start punishing people for what
they’re thinking, where the government decides what I can think and
what I can’t, I think the government’s stepped a little too

Because the caller didn’t say, “Why do you oppose hate crimes
legislation when we know that attacking someone because of who they
love or how they look is not the same thing as nabbing someone’s
wallet. People should be punished equally for attacking people,
sure, but there should be added consequences when the attack is
motivated by hate because we know these attacks are about sending a
message to an entire group of people that says, ‘Listen up, you’re
next.’ Individuals can get a restraining order against someone who
is harassing or threatening them. I don’t see how it’s all that
different to protect minorities and targeted groups against attacks
that are intended to strike fear into the hearts of a whole group
of people. Governor Huckabee?”

A little wordy, yes, but I’m trying to make a point here. On the
radio, at the grocery store, with our colleagues and friends, we
can’t afford to mince words or be unspecific. We can’t ask a major
political figure, “Why do you oppose hate crimes legislation if
you’re for equality” and expect that everyone listening will
understand why hate crimes legislation exists and what it has to do
with “equality”.

It’s too easy for the Mike Huckabees of the world to dig up old
stereotypes about LGBT people and play them against us when all
we’re trying to do is be reasonable, equal, and live our lives.
It’s frustrating to think that we have to “frame” anything that is
right and true, but I hope in spending a few extra words than
normal for a blog post on this folks will see where I’m coming


In my years at Family Equality Council I have co-run our
storytelling training program, OUTSpoken
, and managed our communications with supporters and
the world-at-large. I see countless instances of well-meaning
parents, family and friends trying to tell their story or hold
their media and politicians accountable.

Your willingness to tell your story and stand up to prejudice and
discrimination is incredible and courageous and the necessary first
step towards re-framing the debate. Still, we all have to be more
aware, more strategic, more directed in the way we talk about our
families, the injustices they face and what they need to

Not because we want to, but because the other side is doing it and
doing it so, so well, time and time again.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Staff members at
organizations like Family Equality Council and others spend 8, 9,
10 hours a day focusing on how we’re being attacked and what we
have to do about it to win. We create programs like OUTSpoken
so that you, our supporters, can benefit from the
knowledge we gain researching and strategizing day-in and

For me it is an incredible privilege to have this position and to
do this work. I look forward to sharing tips and information (like
this blog post, which I hope has been helpful), new resources and
events to help us all move equality forward–faster than ever

It’s clear from the past few weeks that the LGBT community has
had it with inequality. But we have to think carefully and
strategically about how share our outrage and our anger or
opportunities for progress will be lost.

If anyone reading this post has specific questions about the
examples of framing and re-framing I’ve given here or others, I’m
all ears. You can contact me directly by clicking
. In the meantime, I hope you take the fire of the last few
months you feel in your guts and turn into courage to tell your
story to everyone that needs to hear it–honestly, pointedly, with
justice in mind and courage in heart.