Washington Rhetoric: The Decoder

Posted: Thu, 04/29/2010 - 6:54pm

Emotion. Fear. Guilt. Racism. These drivers, according to former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, are the four horsemen of a rhetorical apocalypse that stops things from getting done in Washington. “Those are the four things I find in my time here either passed or killed a bill,” Simpson said.

By now you know how much I love twisted rhetoric. (One lawmaker’s earmark, after all, is another’s post office.) So when Simpson, the tart-tongued gentleman from Wyoming who has recently resurfaced as co-chairman of the President’s debt reduction panel offered up this formulation this week, it snagged my attention.

Moreover, Simpson made this observation while seated on stage next to his co-chair Democrat Erskine Bowles during a “fiscal summit” that only the wonkiest of wonks would find stimulating. (I was there, so there you go.)

It was Simpson’s way of explaining why it would be so tough to get Washington to do the things needed to rein in the galloping deficit. But it could easily apply to any of the issues that have occupied the Capitol of late.

Take immigration. This is the issue that never goes away, probably because the Federal government gets paralyzed about it on a regular basis.

Because of the four horsemen Simpson identifies, the rhetoric gets tangled. Lawmakers talk about “enforcement” and protesters talk about “protection.” Everyone talks about “fairness” and everyone seems to have at least something of a point.

Yet the debate remains frozen. Yesterday’s champion of “comprehensive” reform is today’s supporter of border crackdown. No one will say they are for amnesty, but many – including the last President Bush – will emphasize a “path to legalization.” Many, too, will talk about cracking down on immigration while often neglecting to use the word “illegal.”

Immigration, of course, is not the only issue that lends itself to artful phrasing. In what has become an annual exercise, Congress voted this month to deny itself a pay raise.

This, of course, makes perfect political sense. When you’re earning $174,000 a year, paid for in taxpayer dollars, it does not help your reelection chances – even when it’s legally allowed – to automatically collect an additional $1,600 more.

''Not many Americans have the power to give themselves a raise whenever they want, no matter how they are performing,'' Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) said as Congress rushed to reject the cash.

Feel free to take the rhetoric test in the stories we report on Washington Week this and every week.

You’ll find one advocate’s green energy is another’s ocean view desecration (see: wind power).

And notice that the President rechristened the cumbersome “financial regulatory reform,” the far more punchy “Wall Street Reform.”

And this is not limited to Washington. Florida Governor Charlie Crist – lately a pro-freedom Republican – has morphed into a pro-freedom Independent. (Wonderfully, they were playing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” at his party flip announcement.)

He, of course, followed a path forged by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, whose independent streak came into focus when faced with the prospect of a Democratic primary electoral defeat.

File those shifting definitions away. They will almost certainly come in handy again. Lucky for me, when it comes to upside down rhetoric, Washington’s is a full employment economy.