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Democrats’ language lacks rhetorical rhythm

Gary Caruso | Thursday, November 15, 2007

While the technical intricacies of languages around the globe are similar, use of language to politically persuade others is a rhetorical art form. In politics, an argument must be persuasive, visual and memorable. Focus groups have taught pollsters that a favorable reaction begins with a convincing and memorable message. Presently, the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill lacks the adeptness of language that former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich could coin more than a decade ago when he wrestled away control of Congress.

In all fairness to the Democrats, they are not void of successful messages. Their “pay as you go” requirement for the budget mandates that any increase in federal spending must be offset within a balanced budget. But unlike Gingrich, Democrats are slow to create rhetorical phrases that better describe their actions and policies.

Notable Republican wordsmiths Karl Rove and Karen Hughes are famous for parsing a single word such as “oil” to “energy,” and “parents” to “moms and dads” to better solicit support. They helped the president clarify our run-up to the war in Iraq by describing Saddam Hussein as a “grave and gathering threat,” not an outright threat. These Republican operatives were so skillful at their craft that they even recycled the intense fearful emotions elicited from “al Qaeda” by proclaiming the existence of “al Qaeda-like” forces.

Democrats must remember that successful rhetoric defines the argument – or in their case, redefines established Republican messages. Last year, this writer managed the Democratic message delivery for a congressional race in a district that voted out its Republican incumbent. Our strategy focused on using words like “welfare” and “politicians,” which elicited strong emotions from Republicans who had defined them decades ago. In our campaign, the Democrat could immediately relate to Republican voters by proposing that it was time to “take the Iraqi politicians off of American welfare” and let only Iraqis guard the Green Zone. That way, when “Iraq’s politicians” put their own lives on the line, they would be more serious to politically compromise to form a government.

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), legislation designed to protect workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Liberal California Democrat and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller missed a chance to redefine “special rights” during the floor debate. Traditionally, conservatives label any effort which they oppose that specifically addresses discrimination as a “special right,” implying that the public is somehow denied such extraordinary protections. Conservatives labeled the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s a “special right” for women, claiming that women are already covered like the rest of American men under the Constitution. In the 1990s, conservatives once again ignored the fact that a segment of society faced glass ceilings and unjustified incriminations by labeling anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation a “special right.” Once more they claimed that gays are covered like the rest of heterosexuals under the Constitution.

Conservatives dug into their classic rhetorical bag for the ENDA legislation last week. Indiana Congressman Mark Souder claimed that ENDA “set up another class of discrimination, once again pitting sexual discrimination up against the right to practice religious liberty.” Souder asserted that faith-based organizations with fidelity clauses against extramarital sex or one man-one woman marriage clauses had no “defense of marriage” in the bill to follow their missions. He argued that by not specifically indicating that current marriage laws apply under this legislation, organizations which “have any kind of ministry goal and aren’t a profoundly a Christian organization that falls under the very narrow definition of the last amendment, you’re in deep trouble here.”

Miller countered that ENDA only prevents employers from firing a perfectly qualified employee based on sexual orientation. “In fact,” Miller said, “I don’t see anything anywhere in the text of ENDA that discusses extramarital sex, and I can’t understand how Mr. Souder’s come to this conclusion about extramarital sex. But the entire issue is just a diversion from what ENDA actually does.” Astonishingly, Miller concluded that he would actually support the Souder amendment because it would not change the bill, citing sections of the legislation that specifically guaranteed existing state law.

However, Miller missed the perfect opportunity to redefine the long-standing conservative use of “special rights.” He could have said to Souder that this was a time when Souder actually advocated a special right for something already protected under law. Miller should have emphasized that Souder’s defense of marriage was no different than defending women in the 1970s and that a special right seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

Trivial as the parsing of language may seem, its effects on the American public can determine which political philosophy and party governs our lives. As time passes, Democrats will become more skillful during this congressional session. For if they do not establish their rhetorical rhythm, a “mushroom cloud” of voter discontent will declare “mission accomplished” next year.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.