More Than Words

As much as politicians like to imagine themselves men and women of action, what they mostly do is talk. They talk to the cameras, they talk to constituents, they talk to contributors, they talk to each other. It's almost impossible to be a successful politician without the ability to lodge words and images in the public mind.

The result is that a really adept politician has to be part linguist and part semiotician. This is particularly true when you're out of power and there's so little you can actually accomplish. As Republicans are faced with the possibility that this week, Democrats might actually succeed in passing their most critical domestic initiative, is their mastery of the symbolic really enough?

Without question, the GOP won the language battle over health care. With a few vivid terms, like "government takeover" and "death panels," Republicans captured the public's imagination in an otherwise dull policy debate. When they turned their argument to process, they grabbed whatever props they could, as when they brought printouts of the bill to their televised summit with President Barack Obama to show how thick it was, then repeated their desire for starting over with "a clean sheet of paper." Yet for all that well-thought-out use of language and symbols, they're probably going to fail in their attempt to stop the legislation.

It's not that Democrats don't spend time carefully crafting their language (although they aren't nearly as good at it as Republicans). But Republicans turned again and again to arguments about language, criticizing opponents for the words they use, or the words they fail to use. This isn't anything new -- talking about talking (or what scholars of rhetoric call meta-communication) has long been a GOP hobby. Perhaps no president talked more about talking than George W. Bush -- ironic for a man who spent so much time wrestling unsuccessfully with his mother tongue. Bush was forever pointing out the importance of words and stressing his commitment to sending messages.

Other Republicans have attempted to find political hay in their opponents' words, not just in the "How could he have said such a thing!" pretend outrage that is as old as election campaigns but in criticisms of what those opponents didn't say. Rudy Giuliani, for instance, spent much of his comically inept presidential campaign complaining about Democrats' unwillingness to use the same words he did to describe terrorism, an obsession he maintains to this day.

Obama, Giuliani claimed after the last State of the Union, "didn't mention the word 'war' last night, didn't mention the word 'Islamic terrorism' last night" (true on the second, false on the first). Complaining about missing words or words used too much has become standard GOP practice whenever Obama gives a major speech. "This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting and never use the word 'victory' except when he's talking about his own campaign," said Sarah Palin in her 2008 convention speech. George Will has objected on separate occasions that both Barack and Michelle Obama use the word "I" too much.

Then there's the question of apologies, a topic about which conservatives express an unusual concern. In some cultures, politicians are expected to apologize when things go wrong, but in ours we've come to expect the "mistakes were made" formulation, which acknowledges that something went wrong while denying that any actual people, much less the person speaking, had anything to do with it. The most famous non-apology may be the one issued by President George H.W. Bush, when in 1988 the USS Vincennes mistook an Iranian airliner full of civilians for a fighter jet. The Vincennes shot the airliner down, killing all 290 aboard. When Bush was asked whether he would apologize, he replied, "I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are." This mantle has most lately been picked up by Mitt Romney, who titled his pre-2012 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. Not that you were asking Romney to apologize for anything, but just in case you were, the answer is, hell no he won't.

Romney and other conservatives have become enthralled with the idea that Barack Obama is feverishly apologizing for America, despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, Obama has never actually done so. Whenever the president undertakes an overseas trip, they call it an "apology tour," apparently because he treats non-Americans respectfully. Look at this remarkable Heritage Foundation document, which lists "Barack Obama's Top 10 Apologies," not one of which -- not one -- is actually an apology. When Obama greeted Japan's Emperor Akihito with a bow -- the Japanese equivalent of shaking hands, as anyone not raised in a cave is well aware, but also a costless gesture of respect toward a powerless holder of an anachronistic ceremonial office -- they reacted as though he had passed our nuclear launch codes to the Yakuza.

Words can be powerful, and symbols matter. But so long as we're talking about how we're talking, we're no longer talking about what we're doing. For instance, conservatives ought to be pretty pleased about Barack Obama's record thus far on terrorism. We've been arresting suspects and knocking out al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders with drone attacks left and right. How can those who are usually so obsessed with the appearance of "toughness," criticize that? (You could, like former Bush speechwriter and torture fetishist Marc Thiessen, complain that killing terrorists denies us the opportunity to torture them, but then you'd look like an idiot.) So many fall back on criticizing not what Obama is doing about terrorism but how he's talking about terrorism -- if only he would say the word "war" more often, then -- well, something would happen then.

And this is the nub of conservatives' problem. Not all of them are as unhinged as Glenn Beck, spewing allegations of sinister conspiracies to force America's schoolchildren to sing "The Internationale" and don Mao jackets. But nearly all have taken the position that the Obama administration represents something uniquely radical in our recent history. Problem is, the evidence for this assertion is painfully thin. Look at any policy area, foreign or domestic, and what you find are pretty much the kind of initiatives you'd expect from a somewhat progressive Democrat. Obama hasn't nationalized the steel industry, or outlawed gun ownership, or slashed military spending. Even his most ambitious initiative -- health-care reform -- is far from what progressives wanted, resembling most what Romney did in Massachusetts a few years back.

So if you want to argue that the administration represents a sweeping and frightening betrayal of all that is right and good about America, you have to come up with something to pin your argument on. If the case against the policies is weak, a case against the language can always be made, not least because Democrats and Republicans do often talk about things in different ways. That may get you some distance toward your political goals, however, but it won't get you all the way there. And after while, you begin to look like all you care about is talk.

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