Words failed the GOP; will Dems get the message?

Political catchphrases work only if voters sense they correspond to real achievements.
By Geoffrey Nunberg
GEOFFREY NUNBERG, a linguist at UC Berkeley's School of Information, is the author of "Talking Right."

November 19, 2006

THE 2004 elections sent the Democrats into a frenzy of linguistic self-examination. How could the Republicans have enticed so many working- and middle-class voters into voting against their own best interests if not by handing them a snappy line of patter?

Democrats spoke with awe of the Republicans' ability to spin phrases such as "compassionate conservatism," "Clear Skies," "the culture of life" and "the ownership society." The media made a linguistic Svengali out of GOP wordsmith Frank Luntz, who was credited with getting the Republicans to adopt phrases such as "opportunity scholarships" for vouchers and "climate change" for global warming.

Wherever you went, Democrats were talking about the importance of "framing" and "re-messaging."

"We've got to start talking to those people in red states with a language that resonates with them," said the former Democratic National Committee chairman, Terry McAuliffe, while the Third Way organization formed by centrist Democrats announced that it would sponsor polling to help Democrats find more effective political pitches, citing the Republicans' success in replacing "estate tax" with "death tax."

Yet however you account for the Democrats' resounding comeback two years later, it's clear that language had almost nothing to do with it. The party's campaign slogans — from "Together, America can do better" to "A new direction for America" and the unofficial "Had enough?" — amounted to nothing more than new ways to say, "Throw the bums out." In the current climate, Democrats needed only remind voters that whatever else you might say about them, they aren't Republicans. It was the most successful exercise in negative self-definition since 7Up positioned itself as "the uncola" 40 years ago.

In fact, the campaign signaled the final unraveling of the Republicans' linguistic skein, most spectacularly when the White House recently announced that its "stay the course" slogan was inoperative. "We've never been 'stay the course,' " President Bush said, as if he could unsay the dozens of clips that news shows ran that showed him asserting the opposite.

Other administration slogans have fared no better. After the administration briefly floated "Islamic fascism" and "Islamo-fascism" in August, the phrases promptly disappeared from White House speeches. And neither rallying cries such as "border security first" and "the culture of life" nor the specter of "San Francisco values" could stem the defections of swing voters for whom social issues took a back seat to concerns about Iraq, corruption scandals and incompetence.

That meltdown has been a long time coming. In retrospect, the history of the Bush administration could be written as a string of linguistic miscues and retractions. Six months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush's insistence that his administration was focused on getting Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" had morphed into official indifference: "I don't know where he is…. I truly am not that concerned about him."

Then, after the initial military success in Iraq, the administration produced its single most ill-advised bit of rodomontade when Bush appeared in May 2003 beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. (With the wisdom of hindsight, the White House must wish that it had gone with something more noncommittal, such as, "Way to Go.")

In late 2004, the administration hastily repositioned "private accounts" as "personal accounts" in a futile effort to assuage voters' concerns about its plans to restructure Social Security. The following year, the Pentagon proposed dropping "the war on terror" in favor of "the global struggle against violent extremism." The new phrase was meant to suggest a bigger role for diplomatic, political and economic approaches, but it was summarily dropped when the president himself put the kibosh on the re-branding.

"Cakewalk," "Freedom is untidy," "Bring them on," "When they stand up, we'll stand down" — the more pithily memorable the catchphrases were, the more they came back to haunt the administration when their disconnect from reality grew too obvious to ignore. Listening to the administration's continual repackaging of policies that were clearly coming apart at the seams, you might have recalled General Motors' desperate efforts to rescue the moribund Oldsmobile line in the 1990s with models named Alero, Achieva, and Ciera. They kept saying, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," but everybody could see that's exactly what it was.

Still, the Democrats will need to do some more explicit messaging of their own if they want to consolidate their hold on power. As impressive as it is, their victory doesn't do anything to address the "identity gap" between the parties: According to a July 2006 poll by Democracy Corps, 68% of Americans believe that the Republican Party knows what it stands for, while only 45% say the same thing about the Democrats.

The Democrats have two years to take substantive steps to rebuild their brand — increasing the minimum wage, expanding tuition assistance, achieving lobbying and ethics reform and fixing the prescription drug program, among other things. But such achievements won't create a new perception of the party unless Democrats can weave them into a story that conveys a sense of common purpose.

That calls for more than bromides about "opportunity" or "caring." Republicans have had 30 years to dominate and distort the traditional language of American populism, obscuring growing disparities of wealth by creating bogus divisions of lifestyle. To regain their rightful place in the American political imagination, Democrats have to recapture that narrative and the language that evokes it. Many of them already understand that populist themes were prominent in the ads run by successful Democratic Senate candidates Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania and Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota.

That new language can only work if people sense it corresponds to real achievements.

Americans have a deep suspicion of political language, which is really just the other side of the limitless power we often invest it with. But as the Republicans have learned, language becomes hollow once we see there's nothing behind it; words can only focus the reality we've got, not create an alternative one. As W.H. Auden put it: "One notices, if one will trust one's eyes, / The shadow cast by language upon truth."