Campaign Lingo


Every campaign has its favorite phrases. But these days, with bloggers writing at warp speed, with the morning op-eds providing the noontime talking points, and with cablecasters called upon to chew over the same issues for endless hours, pundit vocabulary is being stretched.

To put it another way: Pundits are seeking to gin up interest by doubling down on key metrics to gain traction and provide transparency without blowback or having to pivot, so that at the end of the day they are not thrown under the bus. Sort of.

Frank Rich, whose Sunday pieces in The New York Times often provide a spawning ground for the language of punditry, recently managed to use four of these terms in a single column. He noted that the White House had ginned up the war; that there continues to be blowback by Bush defenders; that rehashing the war's genesis has a lot of traction, and that John McCain may have no choice but to double down on Iraq. Last Sunday, Rich doubled-down on his view by opining that McCain was still doubling down.

Once the more powerful pundits embrace key terms, they trickle down (to use a once-popular economic expression) to TV commentators and candidates. Rarely are new words or phrases invented; rather, existing words take on new meanings in a political context. Soon they become like drips from a faucet, invoked incessantly on TV and radio.

According to the book “Blowback,” by Chalmers Johnson, the CIA invented the term to refer to U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980's, with pundits later picking up the expression. Its gentler cousin, "pushback," was coined roughly 20 years later and was first used, according to wordsmith William Safire, in financial reporting - as in, "high prices were met by pushback from consumers." Nowadays, candidates are often forced into rapid pushback before negative stories gain "traction."

The Oxford English Dictionary traces figurative uses of traction as far back as the 17th century, meaning to grab or take hold. But once an idea with traction becomes problematic, politicians may be forced to "pivot."

"It's in everybody's interest to resolve this quickly so we can pivot,'' Barack Obama told the Associated Press, urging Democrats to unite after the primaries. Senator Obama loves basketball, so he knows how to pivot - changing course, either on the court or the stump. But he'll leave it to John McCain to "gin up" votes.

According to The Grammarphobia Blog, gin up dates back to the 1880's, and originally meant to drink hard liquor. In the 1970's the term took on new meaning: to stir up or excite or get something going. Obama's standard stump speech warns against instilling fear simply to “gin up votes,” or making failed policy worse by "doubling down."

The double down is a calculated wager, made from a position of strength when the odds are favorable to the bettor. In politics, it's redefined as a reckless bet when the odds are poor - so poor, in fact, that losers risk being "thrown under the bus."

"The Word Detective" Web site says the earliest use of "under the bus" was an offhand remark in 1984 by pop singer Cyndi Lauper, who presumably was not running for office when she said it. But in the current campaign, buses roll over anyone who makes trouble, such as Rev. Wright and Pastor Hagee. NPR's Geoff Nunberg says the term "thrown under the bus" appeared at least 400 times in political reports during a six-month period, providing an interesting "metric" by which to judge punditry.

Hillary Clinton - remember her? - tried every metric in the book, searching for a basis by which to claim victory. First it was the "discount the caucuses" metric, then the "electoral vote" metric, and eventually the "popular vote" metric. But the Clinton campaign came up short on both metrics and "transparency."

John McCain, on the other hand, stated recently, "My administration will set a new standard for transparency," which basically means the public will be able to see right through it.

By far the most annoying linguistic drip, drip, drip in television's political coverage is the crutch term, "sort of." It's an affectation, really, one that has sort of spread like a virus among cable pundits. NBC's David Shuster can cram two or three "sort of's" in a single sentence. And during a recent interview, pundit Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker managed to say “sort of” 24 times.

This rambling will continue until Nov. 4, when, "at the end of the day," everyone will be free to stop talking.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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