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The rhetoric of political Pygmies

Gary Caruso | Friday, January 21, 2011

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as well as the two year mark of President Obama’s inaugural ceremonies. While both presidential messages were lofty and uplifting, our political dialogue today remains more petty and filled with personal greed than when Kennedy entered the presidency. As a World War II veteran, Kennedy was strong on defense like Obama. Kennedy, like Obama, believed in a governmental role to solve problems and in tax decreases to spur the economy. However, political communications strategies changed drastically since the days of Camelot.

Kennedy’s election over Vice President Richard Nixon was more of a choice for youthful style over substance, since both men had strikingly similar military and political service records as well as shared most issue-oriented viewpoints. In fact, when congressional Democrats and Republicans functioned through compromise, Democrats remained the majority for 40 years. Newt Gingrich, while orchestrating the 1994 congressional Republican win, strategized that tearing down Congress was his only way to make Republicans a viable choice. Thus, political discourse began evolving into the message of what we oppose rather than what we favor. Ironically, it is Obama’s long-term, steady goal of being a new type of politician —­ coupled with the assassination attempt of Representative Gabrielle Giffords —­ that may finally break our nation’s nasty rhetorical cycle.

Look no farther than the new Republican-led House of Representatives to see a current example of focus group-driven rhetoric most likely parsed by GOP language guru and pollster Frank Luntz. Prior to the Giffords assassination attempt, an economy-weary public reacted more negatively to the term “job-killing” when offered various descriptions of what opponents previously and disapprovingly coined as “Obamacare.” In fact, the official title of H.R. 2 is “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.”

Many automatically attempt to blame both parties as equally engaging in inflammatory tactics. Not true. Republicans could have named their repeal legislation using “to correct,” “to improve” or “to limit” the current healthcare law. President Ronald Reagan supported eight tax increase bills entitled Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, Highway Revenue Act of 1982, Interest and Dividend Tax Compliance Act of 1983, Deficit Reduction Act of 1984, Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Acts of 1985 and 1987, Tax Reform Act of 1986, along with the largest tax increase ($160 Billion) in American history to save Social Security simply entitled, “Social Security Amendments of 1983.”

Such language is more adult-driven, professional and slyly masks its true tax increase nature. But today’s rhetoric is smash-mouth and petty. Paradoxically, the first line describing the Republican legislative bill actually includes last year’s Democratic health care title that in part included education with the parliamentary budget reconciliation process. The Republican bill adopted this week read, “To repeal the job-killing health care law and health care-related provisions in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.”

The Republican healthcare repeal bill was introduced prior to Giffords’ shooting. So when Giffords was shot, an Arizona blogger summed up our present dumbed-down congressional rhetoric by writing on the Vos Iz Neias site, “Notice how there (in D.C.), people can’t come up with a title that doesn’t include the word ‘kill’ or some other inflammatory violent rhetoric designed to rile up their hate sheep. It speaks volumes about the political discourse and inevitable reaction we saw today.”

It is no mystery how GOP celebrity Sarah Palin contrived her crosshair images on targeted Democrats, including Giffords, last election cycle to appeal to fellow hunters and NRA supporters. This writer does not find malice in her motives, just a clumsy, political naïveté that comes with political inexperience. On the other hand, her insistence on describing the firestorm after the Giffords’ assassination attempt as “blood libel” defies political savvy. However, GOP candidates for decades have depended upon negative rhetorical imagery to attract one-issue voters such as those who are anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-union and anti-government.

Following the Iowa Caucus two years ago, Hillary Clinton staff members suggested running more against Bush policy. They proposed saying that we need to “take back” our world standing, our government and our America that once thrived under Bill Clinton’s tenure. Interestingly, Hillary rejected the exact negative rhetoric that propelled Tea Party candidates to victory last year.

Obama has also remained unfailingly steadfast in his commitment to the rhetorical high road. His long-term efforts to extend a hand to Republicans each step of the way and statesmanlike demeanor have boosted his approval rating to 53 percent this week. Undoing negativity Gingrich ingrained decades ago into our political lexicon requires the Obama marathon approach. One-issue voters who see our political process as dysfunctional should for once expel the negativity and “job-killing” rhetoric disgorged before them. Next year’s election will prove just how large Obama is and how puny his opposition’s rhetoric becomes.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was 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.