The politics of parroting

In a campaign speech last May, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) made headlines for his criticism of the term War on Terror. “It’s a bumper sticker, not a plan,” he said.

The presidential candidate had come up with a catchy nugget. Maybe he even thought his catchphrase would make a pretty good bumper sticker.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), also a White House hopeful, didn’t seem to think so. In fact, he was so outraged at Edwards’s fender folly that he returned with his own bumper-worthy tagline: “The War on Terror is NOT a bumper sticker.”

While the two candidates may not see eye to eye on the global war on terrorism, they might agree on a more basic political reality: When campaigning, everything is a bumper sticker.

The simplistic campaign slogan has always had a front seat in American politics. Ulysses S. Grant won reelection in 1872 with “Grant Us Another Term.” Herbert Hoover rode into the White House in 1928 with the promise of “A Chicken in Every Pot. A Car in Every Garage.” In 1952, supporters of the Draft Eisenhower movement sported “I Like Ike” buttons. Four years later? “I Still Like Ike.”

 As candidates head into the 2008 election, the modern-day campaign slogan looks no different from those of old. Which might be best explained by another timeless slogan: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“I’m in to win” was the phrase that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) used in January to open her presidential campaign. Edwards opted for alliteration rather than rhyme for his campaign tagline: “Tomorrow begins today.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) is hoping his “Give Hope another chance” slogan sticks — that’s hope as in Hope, Ark. If that reference requires too much thought, Huckabee’s camp has a rather elementary fallback: “I heart Huckabee,” which really is a bumper sticker.

Romney retooled a popular Howard Deanism when the Republican candidate recently said: “I represent the Republican wing of the Republican Party.” Dean had received wild responses when he told supporters in 2003 he represented the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

But Dean can’t really take offense at Romney’s rip-off; Dean himself swiped the line from its original user: the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D).

“You can’t say anything new,” says George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC-Berkeley who studies the differences in language between conservatives and liberals. “The sound bite must be something [voters] already know, or so simpleminded that it doesn’t say anything.

Lakoff says even Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whom he describes as “the most articulate candidate we’ve had in ages,” is guilty of parroting a few bumper-sticker lines.

“ ‘I’m for change’?” Lakoff mocks. “What the hell does that mean?”

Oh, the audacity of it all.

But such taglines can seem boring, if not trite. That may be why the real meat-and-potatoes of campaign sound bites arrives in the form of the attack slogan. Campaign strategists, those political advertising gurus, spend entire careers searching for that perfect turn of phrase, the one that props their candidate up — or, better yet, knocks the opponent down.

The Clinton campaign tried some sound-bite jujitsu recently, cutting the senator’s opponents down for cutting her down. They ran a Web ad with the tagline “The Politics of Pile-On,” showing her Democratic rivals ganging up on Clinton at a debate. Not to be outdone, the Edwards camp returned fire, attacking Clinton for perceived double-answers during the same debate with its ad, entitled “The Politics of Parsing.”

If only some candidate could espouse the politics of hope.

Of course, the best political one-liners encapsulate a campaign’s or candidate’s entire political philosophy — real or perceived. Sound hard to do in just one line?

During the 2004 presidential election, Republicans succeeded in categorizing Democratic nominee John Kerry with just two words: “Flip” and “flop.”

“What [‘flip-flop’] says in the context of conservatism is ‘This guy has no backbone, he has no morality.’ ” says Lakoff. “If you’re flip-flopping you can’t be moral, you can’t be decisive. And in a war you’re supposed to be decisive. Not only that, but you’re weak. So it says all of those things at once.”

Repeat the label enough times, in enough campaign ads, presidential debates and pan shots of chanting crowds at the Republican National Convention, and that impression will likely stick, regardless of merit.

A Pew Center poll taken in September of 2004, following the Republican National Convention, showed that 53 percent of voters believed Kerry “changes his mind too much.” Those polled felt President Bush was more likely to take a stand than Kerry, and that the phrase “strong leader” applied to Bush more than Kerry.

If a damning label can be applied to an entire party, rather than just an individual candidate, so much the better.

Remember all those “defeatocrats” who wanted to “cut and run” from the war in Iraq?

“What ‘defeatocrat’ does is say: ‘The issue is war, not occupation, and it’s winnable and [Democrats] are the bad guys who are trying to keep people from winning,’ ” Lakoff says. The GOP “managed to find a single word that evokes this vast complex,” he adds.

And what about the Democrats? Surely they have more than just “Republicant”?

“The progressive sound bites are stupid,” says Lakoff, who directs a progressive think tank. “ ‘A new direction for Congress.’ ‘We can do better.’ Those are really dumb.”

Lakoff says that such phrases stem from polls and the urge to tell voters what they want to hear. If voters tell pollsters they don’t like the direction in which the country is headed, it’s no coincidence that members of Congress soon start promising “A new direction.” If they say they don’t like the way the war is being run, the slogan becomes “There is a better way!” A more detailed explanation of directions or ways does not always follow.

But perhaps in an era of poll-driven, third-grade-reading-level slogans, the clever candidate is king. Especially if he’s also funny.

At the Republican presidential debate held in Orlando, Fla., last October, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had the kind of zinger dreamed of by campaign strategists when he alluded to the 1969 Woodstock concert.

“A few days ago, Sen. Clinton tried to spend $1 million on a Woodstock concert museum,” McCain began, a half-smile creeping across his face. “Now, my friends, I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event.”

He paused for comedic timing: “I was tied up at the time.”

For the next several news cycles, McCain’s “tied up at the time” quip dominated debate coverage and analysis. In a single line, McCain was able to generate a laugh, remind voters of his experiences as a decorated POW and severely undercut an opponent.

McCain fans quickly posted the clip on YouTube, that eternal resting place of the digital sound bite, where it has been viewed more than 40,000 times.

And counting.

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