Weasel Words


It’s always interesting — and frequently infuriating — to pay close attention to the language politicians and their proxies use. This is Ken Mehlman’s response to a question about what the GOP needs to do to get back into the American voter’s good graces:

We have to recommit ourselves to being the party of reform. We have to push things like earmarks. We have to focus aggressively to reduce spending in Washington. Tax reform is another one. Immigration reform.People put us into power for different reasons than Democrats. They put us in power to reform things. If all we’re doing is managing the bureaucracy and not reforming it, we are not living up to the most important thing we stand for.Message two is we have to try as hard as we can to work in a bipartisan way, where we can, consistent with our principles, and we have to make sure our tone is always a respectful tone. Washington is polarized. Americans have disagreements on issues. But Washington has personal disagreements on issues. Outside the Beltway, people who are in a different party don’t look at each other differently. Just because someone disagrees with you is no reason to call them names.

The third message is to say that people who are in public service ought to be about serving the public not aggrandizement for themselves, and certainly not for personal enrichment.

It’s really an extraordinary performance. A prime example of how Mehlman rose to become the head of one of our two major parties. People like Mehlman, whatever their party, aren’t paid to be consistent, principled, honest, or even sensible. They’re paid to win. If that means saying tomorrow the exact opposite of what they said today, and insisting that such has always been their position and anyone who says otherwise is low born and high smelling, that is what they do — and with a perfectly straight face.

Both sides do it constantly, of course, but I thought this was an especially swell example of packing more b.s. onto the same sized shovel. What’s more, if the GOP takes it to heart, it won’t win. Let’s break it down a bit, shall we?

His opening paragraph attempts to define the GOP by its classic campaign issues: smaller government, less spending, lower taxes, and generally more common-sense lawmaking. He says them as if the last 12 years hadn’t happened.

We have to push things like earmarks.

I should think the GOP has pushed earmarks quite far enough. As I read recently, Pres. Reagan once vetoed a transportation bill because it had the extraordinary number of 152 earmarks in it. The last transportation bill Pres. Bush signed had over 6,000.

We have to focus aggressively to reduce spending in Washington.

See above. See also: debt, national.

Immigration reform.

Meaning what, exactly? As Mehlman’s party should have learned, when you’re actually governing (not just critiquing the other guy’s efforts to govern), you don’t get to just be for “immigration reform.” The GOP couldn’t have been any more for “immigration reform” than it’s been for the past several years. The problem is, they couldn’t come to any agreement on what “immigration reform” means, and therefore they accomplished nothing on the issue. The GOP doesn’t need to come out for immigration reform; it needs to figure out what kind of immigration reform it wants.

Do Democrats have the same problem? Yup. And probably on more issues than the GOP. That’s historically been the case, at least. Yet the Dems managed to govern the Congress for nearly the entire post-WWII era. How? It’s called compromise, both internally and with the minority party. The congressional GOP has not brooked much compromise over the past 12 years, and certainly not with the minority party. (Recall that one of the first things they did was change the House rules to radically reduce the input and influence of the minority, and they consolidated the majority’s power in the offices of the leadership to reduce even intraparty compromise.) That’s what bit them on immigration reform, even though they owned both houses of Congress and the White House, and all of them were “for” it: they wouldn’t compromise with each other on how to do it. As a result, nothing got done. That’s what happens when you try to govern using the same methods and principles you used when you were the loyal opposition.

What the GOP needs, if they want get back in good graces with the American voter, is not to come out for “immigration reform.” What it needs is to learn how to function as a governing majority.

People put us into power for different reasons than Democrats. They put us in power to reform things.

No, actually, they don’t. People elect Republicans for exactly the same reasons they elect Democrats: because there’s something they want done. When people want things reformed, they vote for the party that’s currently out of power, whichever party that is. If the GOP goes forward with the self-righteous mindset revealed in this particular Mehlman remark, its next attempt at governing will be as disastrous as this one was.

Washington is polarized. Americans have disagreements on issues. But Washington has personal disagreements on issues.

Ah, the passive voice. Anytime you hear a politician slip into the passive voice, check your wallet. (President Bush is a frequent offender, especially on Iraq. The Dems are currently commiting the opposite offense — using the active-sounding word “redeployment” in place of the more accurate but passive-sounding “retreat.”) Going passive here allows Mehlman to make it sound like the polarization, etc., is just a condition the GOP encountered; they had nothing to do with creating it, but now that they know it’s there, well, by golly, they’re going let the people know they’re for fixing it.

Notice he didn’t say, “Both parties are at fault here, but for our part, we’ve been using increasingly shrill and polarizing rhetoric, going all the way back to Newt’s days as a backbencher, and we’ve got to find a more productive way of expressing disagreement.” Or, “We’ve made a point of campaigning on the most divisive issues we could find, and we’ve learned that, even if we win, that makes it really hard to govern.” Or, “It’s not all our doing, but we, through our style of leadership, helped make the disagreements in Washington much more personal, and we need to find a way to start undoing the damage.”

Saying those things would mean taking personal responsibility, something the GOP favors, but for others.

Going forward, if the GOP doesn’t recognize and take responsibility for its faults over the past 12 years, it won’t mend them, and it won’t be any better at governing the next time.

The third message is to say that people who are in public service ought to be about serving the public not aggrandizement for themselves, and certainly not for personal enrichment.

Well, actually, the GOP doesn’t need to say people in public service ought to be trying to find and enact the best available policy for the country, it needs to do it the next time it gets a chance to govern.

Karl Rove talks about building a permanent Republican majority. It will never happen as long as Mehlman’s (and Rove’s) kind of thinking prevails in the party, because that kind of thinking doesn’t work when you are the guy who has to govern, and therefore no like-minded Republican majority will ever be anything like permanent. Based on the last 60 or so years of congressional history, one would have to say that the Democrats are simply better at governing than the Republicans are. That’s why they had a near-permanent majority during that period. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s still true after 12 yrs. in the wilderness.

7 Responses to “Weasel Words”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Good post, JU.

    It would be cool to get more folks interacting. I went searching for Mehlman reps on the web – would be neat to interact with them, but all I found was his official bio on the RNC website (along with other websites with important sounding discussions as to his sexual orientation for some reason or another).

    And listeners, thanks for tuning in to today’s word verification, wwfvb.

  2. Michael Lasley Says:

    Nice analysis, JU. I doubt the GOP would see that they’ve made major mistakes over the past 12 years. That would require a level of self-criticism that neither party is going to do. Especially with the GOP and their desire to not be seen as weak.

    Hey, maybe we could get us some of that REform, daddy?

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Thanks, both. This was one of those posts that started off as a quickie, but once I started typing, it just kept growing.

    Mikey — This time, the Dems had the broom and midget and whatnot. The Republicans couldn’t get REform without looking like a bunch of johnny-come-latelys, no matter how stumpy. (No Max Cleland or Tammy Duckworth references intended.)

    I think both parties are capable of self-critical learning. I don’t see how we’d ever have gotten to where we are as a nation (which I’m saying is, overall, a pretty darn good place) if they weren’t, since they run the country. It’s just a question of whether their current incarnations have the courage to do it. The GOP needs it in order to recover and have some hope for the future; the Dems need it to keep from fumbling the ball right now.

    Al — That would be interesting. Somehow I suspect those guys are all going to have bigger fish to blog, though. (As to Mehlman’s sexuality, I heard the other day on the news that it had been the subject of lots of speculation in D.C. in recent years.)

    You might find this interesting: it occurs to me that the GOP’s history looks rather like what I described elsethread as the cyclical history of American Christianity. Hmmmmmmm . . . I’ll have to think on that one some more.

  4. juvenal_urbino Says:

    It looks like at least one prominent congressional Democrat — Jack Murtha — didn’t learn a darn thing from the GOP’s problems.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    I missed whatever Murtha did. What did he did?

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    He’s running for Majority Leader against Steny Hoyer. When a piece appeared in the Washington Post, pointing out he has some ethical questions hanging over him, he came out very angrily and accused Hoyer of planting the story, and said it was an attempt to “swift-boat” him.

    So not only does he have ethical problems very similar to some of the outgoing GOP members (which, to their credit, the liberal blogs have been busting him on for months, and still are, even though they don’t like Hoyer at all), but he took something that could have been handled quietly and collegially and made it very public, very personal, using very strident, over-the-top rhetoric.

    I’m hoping the rest of the Dems will lay the smackdown on him for this particular piece of idiocy by withdrawing whatever support he had for becoming Majority Leader.

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:


    I guess Pres. Bush and Karl Rove didn’t learn anything from this experience, either. Barely a week, and already they’re choosing to feed the base rather than actually govern.

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