Washington Week

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Translating History

I have a little hobby as a journalist. I love to listen to how people use words. That sounds simpler than it is. It requires the listener to be skeptical rather than cynical, yet to cheerfully expose the meaning behind the meaning.

While I was deciding what to write here this week, a perfect example practically reached out and grabbed me by the throat. And I was sitting at the desk in the NewsHour studio at the time.

After years of health care debate, weeks of incremental process stories and a climactic Sunday night vote, there were plenty of chances to read between the lines this week. And the Democrats’ party-line victory, combined with the Republicans’ bitterly unaccepted defeat, has given us a number of opportunities for translation.

It took no time at all for Republicans to declare the new health care law illegitimate, and to threaten to defang it by any means necessary. A popular refrain—no doubt cooked up at a GOP caucus meeting—was that they would “repeal and replace” the bill – and wipe those smiles right off the Democrats’ faces. I heard the phrase bounce from the lips of everyone from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC).

Here’s the dirty secret. Almost no one who watches lawmaking in Washington believes the health care law can be repealed. Hacked to pieces over time, perhaps – but not outright repealed. But that never stands in the way of a pithy and alliterative phrase.

At least it didn’t until Tuesday night on the NewsHour. Jim Lehrer, in an interview with Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), asked whether Republicans—who are after all in the minority—really intended to repeal the new law, which had been signed into law mere hours earlier.

“Our view is that we should repeal and replace the bill with the solutions that we think actually work,” Kyl told Jim, sticking to the talking points. But then he added: “Obviously, the president will not sign a repeal bill that the Congress passes, so that's more of a symbol.”

A symbol? Did Senator Kyl really admit that on live television?

Jim pressed. Was there really not going to be an effort to repeal?

“No,” Senator Kyl replied. “Barack Obama is president. He would never sign a repeal law. We don't have the votes to get it passed right now. We're not going to waste our time on that.”


I wanted to thank the Senator for that. Normally we reporters spend a lot of time exposing the politics behind the rhetoric.

In the weeks leading up to the health care vote, we repeatedly heard that Democrats were trying to “ram” the bill down our throats. We heard of “massive” Medicare cuts and tax increases. We heard that the “American people” did not want this. After it passed, I heard the Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) call it a “health spending bill.” It was all evocative language, but debatable at best.

Such rhetorical wrangling is not only the province of the GOP. In the days after the vote, we heard Democrats use language to claim the high moral ground, casting the new law in terms of what it would do to help small children or, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) did, say it would bring an end to the days when simply being a woman was a preexisting condition for denying health care coverage.

The beauty of these sweeping claims is that you can usually find something to back at least some of it up. Depending on the evidence they seek, both sides can find support for the notion that the American people are on their side.

The Republicans, for instance, like the CBS News poll which found that 62 percent of those surveyed want Republicans to keep fighting against the new law. The Democrats like the USA Today/Gallup poll, which showed more Americans favor (49%) than oppose (40%) the law.

The beauty of these numbers, and of all political language, is that they are open to interpretation – and, of course, translation.

That’s why we're here. See you Friday night.