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The Worst Clichés of Politics From 'Tax-and-Spend' to 'Maverick'

4 years ago
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According to my rough calculations, our political tongue -- the language of campaigns, elections and, yes, governing -- is sustained by an army of maybe 10,000 professional babblers. They are the Quoted (White House officials, members of Congress and big-time candidates), the Quote Creators (speechwriters and press-release purveyors) and the Quote Users (reporters, columnists and TV correspondents).
And taken as a group -- with some notable exceptions -- they display all the originality of second-graders telling knock-knock jokes.
Think I am exaggerating?
Just remember all the times during the post-election session of Congress when senators and pundits alike went on cable TV to denounce "pork-barrel politics." The phrase was once a colorful description of wasteful federal spending, but no one in Washington has seen an actual pork barrel since the days when Zachary Taylor was president. Edward Everett Hale popularized the expression in an 1863 short story that had nothing to do with politics. But according to my personal copy of "A Dictionary of American Politics" by Everett Brown and Albert Strauss (the definitive 1892 edition), "pork" was defined as "a term used in politics to designate the spoils of legislation."
So exactly why are we still using a term that was already a cliché in 1892? That was so long ago that the White House had just been equipped with a new technology called electricity and new slang phrases like "hold your horses" were entering the language.
Even more shopworn is the expression -- just four simple words -- that automatically identifies the speaker as someone who has been hanging around Congress far too long as an incumbent, a reporter or a lobbyist. Sure, you can write hymns to bipartisanship and prattle on about compromise in politically divided Washington, but please stop pledging to "work across the aisle." Nobody else in America -- other than a Capitol Hill gasbag -- talks about "across the aisle" unless the topic is seating for a wedding.
Already, I am braced for the linguistic assault from 2011 trench warfare in Washington and the verbal pyrotechnics from the 2012 presidential campaign, even if Sarah Palin -- the Elocution Queen of Alaska -- does not run. That is why I have compiled a personal list of political words and phrases that have outlived their usefulness. In the quest for original political rhetoric, these cliché-ridden expressions should be sent to the glue factory, consigned to the dustbin of history, and shoved down the booby hatch.
Some items on my list are merely banal -- such as calling a political desperation ploy a "Hail Mary pass." Maybe in the future we can call a nothing-left-to-lose political gambit an "Aqua Buddha spot" after the brutal Democratic attack ad in Kentucky that failed to bring down Rand Paul.
Other expressions, though, are diabolical clumps of words that interfere with clear thought. Republicans like John Boehner revel in attacking Democrats for their "tax-and-spend agenda." This is a moth-eaten GOP phrase: George H.W. Bush denounced the "philosophy of tax-and-spend" when he declared for the Republican nomination for president against Ronald Reagan in 1979. But tax-and-spend is what every democratic government has done since the days of Pericles. The political fissure between the Democrats and Republicans has always been over the next step -- whom you tax and on what you spend.
Here is the rest of my Lexicon of the Hackneyed and the Humdrum. These are political catch-phrases that I never want to hear again:
Grow the economy: This ungainly formulation, implying that the economy is a fragile orchid needing the tender ministrations of a dedicated gardener, was rarely employed until Bill Clinton ran for president. The NEXIS database turns up fewer than 200 versions of this awkward expression used by anyone in the world during the 1980s. But then Clinton declared in October 1991, "We've got to grow this economy, not shrink it" as he entered the presidential primaries. (Note to self: Never again write that anyone "threw his hat into the ring" unless a boxing match has been interrupted by a flying fedora.)
Sadly, this Clinton-ism grew like kudzu. Defending his tax-cutting zeal during an impromptu Sept. 4, 2001 press conference, George W. Bush said, "What we ought to be thinking about is: How do we grow the economy of the United States?"
In truth, what presidents ought to be thinking about is: How do we shrink the use of this grating expression? Barack Obama, who has mostly grown the unemployment rate as president, claimed that his stimulus package would "grow the economy of tomorrow" in a Feb. 7, 2009, radio address. And defending his grand Capitol Hill compromise just two weeks ago, Obama assured business executives, "I am absolutely convinced that this tax-cut plan, while not perfect, will help grow our economy."
Some might argue that three sets of presidential speechwriters can't all be wrong. But I see a nation where presidents concerned about economic growth resurrect John Kennedy's more mellifluous promise to "get America moving again."
Maverick: John McCain's only lasting accomplishment since the 2008 election has been single-handedly to destroy this great 19th century American word that honored Samuel Maverick's refusal to brand his cattle. William Safire in his indispensable "Safire's New Political Dictionary" defined a maverick as "one who is unorthodox in his political views and disdainful of party loyalty, who bears no man's brand."
During his 2000 presidential primary campaign, McCain appeared to be the personification of such a maverick as he challenged Republican orthodoxy on tax cuts, campaign reform and the divine right of George W. Bush to the GOP nomination. A Google search of book references shows much greater use of the word maverick when McCain was running for president than when "Maverick" starring James Garner was a hit 1950s TV Western. A NEXIS search unearthed 1,088 media references describing McCain as a maverick in 2000 alone.
The media mob (myself included) stuck with this sobriquet far too long as McCain morphed into an off-the-rack Republican senator. Even when McCain claimed in a Newsweek interview before this year's Arizona GOP primary, "I never considered myself a maverick," the magazine insisted on using as its subhead: "A maverick fights for his political life -- and his soul." McCain's amnesiac denial of his unbranded political history (a 2008 McCain campaign ad proclaimed him -- you can guess what's coming -- "the original maverick") makes a mockery of the political legacy of Samuel Maverick.
The next time a national political figure shimmers with party-be-damned independence, we should dust off that other evocative 19th century political coinage -- mugwump. Derived from an Algonquin word, mugwumps were originally Republicans who bolted the GOP in 1884 to protest the nomination of James Blaine for the presidency. Mugwump will become a particularly useful term in 2012 if the Republican Party fractures over the presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin -- McCain's other enduring contribution.
Progressive: For the past two decades, the ideological divide in America has been between Republicans who call themselves "proud conservatives" and Democrats who stammer, " don't believe in labels." When pressed, most of these skittish Democrats invoke the fig-leaf term "progressive" to describe themselves rather than the more familiar and descriptive moniker of "liberal."
After a campaign year in which the Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven Senate seats, it is safe to call this the worst rebranding effort since Blackwater -- the scandal-scarred security contractor -- tried to transform itself into Xe Services. Nobody is fooled when liberals put on this bargain-basement camouflage. Winnie the Pooh was more authentic when he pretended to be a small black cloud (rather than a tubby bear hanging onto a balloon) so he could gull the bees into giving up their honey.
Actually, there is one influential American who has been convinced by this linguistic subterfuge -- Glenn Beck. The Fox News host has long been on a rampage against the Progressive Era, the moment when America purportedly went off the rails by enacting Constitutional amendments permitting (warning: those with weak hearts should proceed with care) a federal income tax and direct election of senators. As Beck bluntly put it during a pre-Christmas broadcast, "The enemy to our Constitution is the progressive movement."
Viral: The metaphorical version of this word has so trumped its literal meaning that these days a swine-flu epidemic would probably be described as having "gone Internet."
It is probably a futile battle, but could we, at least in politics, limit the number of gaffes, gotcha videos and TV spots that we describe as "viral." Sure, Christine O'Donnell qualified with her Salem Witch Trial defense: "I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." Maybe even Carly Fiorina's bizarro "demon sheep" ads made the cut. But that is about it for Campaign 2010.
During the run-up to the 2012 primaries, please avoid claiming that anything involving this-bland-is-my-bland GOP presidential possibilities like Mitt Romney and John Thune is viral. Solid political figures like these have to work hard to even become epidemic. And -- at all costs -- never type this redundant sentence: "The buzz has gone viral."
Horse race Metaphors: Seven years ago in a column, I piously announced my intention to write about politics without resorting to hackneyed tropes like referring to one candidate as the "front-runner" and another as "trying to break out of the pack." No more "finish lines," "stretch runs," "marathons" and "sprints" for me. Instead, I was going to concoct fresh imagery (maybe based on other sports like tiddlywinks and jai alai) to add literary zest to Campaign 2004.
A few days later that resolve died from natural causes (or, as the autopsy report put it, "intense deadline pressures") in a hotel room in Des Moines on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. A few failed sentences ("John Kerry faced his moment of truth like a matador...") made me realize that the metaphoric union of horse racing and politics represents celestial harmony -- the perfect marriage of trope and truth.
Some political clichés like horse race metaphors survive for a reason. But so many others (personal bugaboos like Republicans deliberately dropping the "ic" in "Democratic" and liberals braying about "working families") endure because of unimaginative politicians and mediocre speechwriters.
Maynard Parker, a legendary editor at Newsweek during the 1980s, used to edit copy by inserting a phrase that he had installed on the save-get keys of his early computer: "Say Better Please." That should be the goal of all of us as we struggle to find language colorful and evocative enough to describe the political panorama of the New Year.

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I think that after the last election one of the worst and overused poitical cliches is "the wisdom of the American people." How can there be such wisdom when all polls show how many Americans are woefully misinformed about basic facts in the political world. yes, some wisdom was shown in the rejecton of such incrediblke outliers as Christime O'Donnell or Carl Paladino, but many, many were elected because the voting electorate accepted the lies about death panels and that the stimulus added no jobs, that the bailouts were Obama's doing, etc. You cannot somehow divine wisdom based on complete misinformation.

January 01 2011 at 3:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh, sorry. I see, belatedly, that "at the end of the day" was already covered earlier in the thread, by cochiseh and jax497.

December 30 2010 at 3:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Oh, please, can I add to the list? What about the figures of speech that all of these same players use as verbal crutches? I defy you to watch a segment of any political news or commentary show without hearing the phrase, "That having been said..." You can't do it. I think professional blabbermouths get paid by the number of times they work that phrase into their segment on the air. And why on earth does EVERYTHING come to a conclusion "at the end of the day," even when they are usually talking in terms of months and years into the future? Is there a law that they can't use any other similar cliche, such as, "When all is said and done," or, "When the dust settles," or, "Ultimately?" Lastly, though I have many more on my list, I will conclude with, "The reality of it is..." I really get tired of being told what reality is, as though the speaker is the only authority on reality. Pretty condescending. Whew! Thanks for letting me get those off my chest.

December 30 2010 at 2:02 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Regarding Cliches: I agree that "Progressive" is not ideal but it is a good count attach to Shapiro's blatantly obvious omission "Family Values". Family Values means I hate Gays and any science that might contradict primitive stories that have been passed down so many years ago we don't have any idea of what the people who originated them were facing. After much scientific study, psychology concluded that torture or other less drastic means of forcing someone else to conform to useless and unnecessary societal norms does not work when dealing with homosexuality. These studies were concluded over 50 years ago. It is hardly progressive when hundreds of millions of people all over the world have proven that they can change their hate into acceptance and even embrace their children, aunts, uncles, and parents even though, or even because, they are one or two steps out of norm. There is no family in a value that throws one of its own into the fires of Bal.

December 30 2010 at 2:56 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The world "free" nations are in economic trouble, enough said. In the late 40's, It was evident that the rebuilding of Japan's industry was taking a toll on endustrialized America. Billions of American tax dollars went to re-build Heroshima as an appology to Japan for nukeing their cities. The Japaneese auto industry put a strain on Detroit but no one seemed to care. China came foreward with an offer to allow American enterprises to relocate factories in their country. Free trade agreements were signed to allow vast imports of foreign made goods to be shipped to the USA, thus destroying the American businesses by unfair labor costs. America could not compete. Where were the minds of our leaders that they let this happen? Under the desk??

December 29 2010 at 11:12 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Where is the 'I can almost see Russia from my back door?'

December 29 2010 at 10:11 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Time to go, John. When you choose someone like "Sarah" as a running mate, then every decision you make from there on should be questioned.

December 29 2010 at 10:04 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I agree with cochiseh..."at the end of the day" is over-used by everyone in business, politics, etc. McCain can also drop the phrase "my friends" when he makes a speech and uses that phrase every other sentence. Both are irritating as is use of the word "space" the stock market folks on CNBC to refer to a certain business segment.

December 29 2010 at 8:29 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

How about adding "at the end of the day".

December 29 2010 at 8:06 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

when I was working the democrat party was tops for me and although I voted for obama I seem to have regrets he should have worked on the job problem instead of the health problem and he went gung ho into spending the tax payers money we ss people havent had a cost of living raise in two years and the cost of living hasn't stopped climing so I repent for voting for him I just dont think he is the man for the i am voting for gov. huckabee this time a republican.

December 29 2010 at 7:51 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to james's comment

Me too. I've had enough "Change" and blaming Bush for everything that isn't right.

December 29 2010 at 9:06 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

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