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May 2, 2005

Semantic antics

Posted by Phil on May 2, 2005 3:37 PM

The Daily Howler illuminates the worth of pointing out the political strategy behind silly word games.

Honest debate begins with honest language. Republicans market-test terms before they roll out initiatives. Everyone starts using the terms they have selected. If the initiative falters, they come up with new terms, disavow their old ones, and deny ever having used them. Indeed, they declare the old terms to be unfair and pejorative, insisting at every opportunity that they were developed and used by their opponents. Furthermore, and conveniently, the broad use of the old terms is said to prove the sacred conservative myth of a united media, biased against them. Once again, the "they said/they said" canard of media objectivity serves the disingenuous best.

It's niggling politics, and pointing out the trick can look like nitpicking of the lowest sort. Except sometimes--at the most important times--it matters. Language is the currency of politics, and Republicans often do their shopping without legal tender.

According to [Chris] Wallace, everyone's benefits "continue to grow" under Bush's proposal. According to [Tim] Russert, everyone "would have their benefits cut!" But Wallace and Russert are using the same set of facts, which makes this a classic semantic dispute. And this is a semantic dispute which actually makes a major difference. This conflict will make a major difference in how this debate will turn out.

Around the web in recent weeks, some writers have fought semantic wars about matters that likely make little difference. As we have noted, polling suggests that it makes little difference whether Bush's plan is described as involving "private accounts" or "personal accounts" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/05). In the filibuster fight, it's unlikely that outcomes will actually turn on "nuclear option" v. "constitutional option." But does Bush's plan prescribe benefit cuts? Or will everyone's benefits grow? This is the semantic war that drove the brainless Medicare fight from 1994 through 1996--and yes, this word choice made a huge difference in the way voters came to judge the GOP's Medicare plan.

Our suggestion? The liberal world’s limited intellectual resources should be focused hard on this matter. If logic and history are any guide, this distinction will make a major difference in the forthcoming SS debate. The logic of this word-choice must be fully explored and it must be clearly explained--and no, this doesn't happen by chance.

Excitables all around the liberal world should bring their powers to bear on this topic. Has Bush proposed "cuts" or "growth" in SS benefits? It's a major, important distinction--a distinction that will affect outcomes.