STEPHEN SMITH: Empty Words: Republicans Lost Because Phrases Failed Them
The conservative pundits have been ladling up a slew of rationalizations for last week's Republican debacle.
The Democrats didn't win the election, the Republicans lost it; the Republicans lost the elections because they forgot their core values; Americans were sending a signal about the war in Iraq; the country was ready for a change. Blah, blah, blah.
Forget the excuses. They mean nothing because no one will remember them, and in the long run they'll have no impact on the language -- or on politics. Conservatives are spewing nothing but time-sensitive abstractions, words lost to the mythical ether.
So why did the Republicans forfeit the House, the Senate, myriad governorships, and thousands of local offices? The answer is simple. They failed to control the language. Which is surprising since their political success during the last 10 years has been a direct result of their brilliant use of linguistic manipulation. For example, the Republican language operatives have transformed forever the meaning of the word "liberal."
How did they do this? They took a look at history and figured out why some presidents are great and others aren't. Jefferson was the master of the political essay -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Lincoln was the greatest writer of all our presidents -- "The world will little note nor long remember." FDR rescued the nation with "nothing to fear but fear itself." John Kennedy was a writer by profession -- "Ask not what your country can do for you." And even saint Ronald could turn a memorable phrase -- "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
These are phrases Americans remember, and the individuals who spoke the words are ensconced in our national Parthenon.
Twenty-first-century Republicans understood this early on and have used the language to good advantage. But in recent months, they failed to come up with catch phrases that were adequately disingenuous.
"Stay the course" and "cut and run" were employed with artless desperation during the last few months of the political campaign -- much to Comedy Central's delight. Political humor shows such as "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" took advantage of the Republican gaffe and ran hilarious snippets of the president and all his men repeating three-word homilies ad nauseam. When "stay the course" and "cut and run" were employed over and over, the words lost all meaning. All we heard was the president of the United States making absurd sounds with his mouth.
Fox News, the propaganda arm of the conservative movement, has surely made an impact on national politics by dishing up a steady diet of Republican baloney that eventually turned rancid in the heat of the election. Yeah, Ole Abe summed it up beautifully: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time."
Still, I had to admire last-ditch conservative efforts to rattle an electorate that had apparently made up its collective mind. Here's a great metaphoric image taken from MSNBC: "If the Democrats win the election, they'll be like the dog that caught the car."
In one sentence, conservative talking heads relegated half the population to the intellectual status of canines, who were pursuing the president and his policies with reckless fervor -- "Woof, woof, woof!" -- and if the object of their pursuit was finally overtaken, the Democrats would be capable of nothing more than staring dumbfoundedly at the great Republican machine. Pretty good image, but it was too little too late.
You'd think George Bush would have learned that words can come back to haunt a politician, as with "Mission accomplished" and the incredibly stupid "Bring 'em on." (What was the most memorable Tricky Dick quote, "I'm not a crook"?) But there was nothing to lose with the president's approval rating at 30 something percent, so the Republicans went babbling on into oblivion.
Bereft of "political capital" to expend, Bush began his latest language campaign last Wednesday. Unlike the much-maligned Dixie Chicks, he's apparently ready to make nice, if only with arch-enemies Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And, hey, he kicked Rumsfeld's butt to save his own, saying he "had been talking with Don Rumsfeld over a period of time about fresh perspective. He likes to call it 'fresh eyes.'"
Fresh eyes my -- .
Stephen Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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