August 2011: Our disposable political rhetoric

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

It was a long, contentious political summer dominated by the battle over the federal debt in Congress and skirmishes in the states over spending and taxes.

Partisans looked to spin what was happening, and there was some colorful language, none of the slogans or phrases seemed memorable. It seems as our politics grows more petty and small, the rhetoric employed also shrinks as politicians and candidates gravitate to catchy and simplified soundbites.

Take the attempt by Congressional Republicans to “brand” their proposed budget with the slogan: “cut, cap and balance,” which was derided by Democrats as “duck, dodge and dismantle.” The Democrats at least had alliteration going for them, but neither formulation was particularly catchy.

For their part, the Democrats tried to assign blame after Standard & Poor’s dropped the country’s credit rating, dubbing it the “Tea Party downgrade,” but White House officials muddled the message by attacking S&P’s for errors in its analysis and conclusions.

House Majority Leader John Boehner scored some metaphorical points in arguing that negotiating with the White House was “like dealing with Jell-o.”

“Some days it’s firmer than others,” he added. “Sometimes it’s like they’ve left it out over night.”

The most vivid language of the summer came from Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D, Mo.) who tweeted that the debt deal that President Obama struck with Republicans was a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed, adding that this legislative meal included “some Satan fries on the side.”

What exactly is a Satan sandwich? While the consensus among language mavens and political journalists was that it is the equivalent of a (to put it delicately) “crap sandwich,” it seems Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor, was making a theological statement based on his longer explanation:

If you lift the bun, what you see is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach. Which is take care of the poor, take of the aged. I am concerned about this because we don’t know the details. And until we see the details, we’re going to be extremely non-committed, but on the surface it looks like a Satan sandwich.

Cleaver, who is also chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted against the deal.

Don’t expect any of the slogans or metaphors of the summer of 2011 to stick. They’re disposable. The professional spinners and wordsmiths are already testing new catchy phrases in focus groups and brainstorming sessions, aware that the public’s attention span is limited.

Candidates and their consultants will keep trying, because finding those elusive buzzwords that strike a nerve with voters (“Close the missile gap,” “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” “It’s the economy, stupid,” “Hope and change”) can mean the difference between victory and defeat at the polls.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
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