Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer slammed a “petty” Barack Obama and his “childish” staff last night for engaging in the Limbaugh Strategy. In the same breath as he piously decried childishness, Fleischer used a Limbaugh trademark – referring to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” Party.
On David Shuster’s MSNBC show, Fleischer did not answer repeated and pointed questions about whether hoping Obama fails is “unpatriotic.” The infamous Bush servant, who once used the White House podium to thuggishly lecture Bill Maher and all Americans on patriotism – “all Americans… need to watch what they say, watch what they do” – described Limbaugh as “a conservative radio host, a very popular one, and I like him.”
Here’s the transcript of the initial exchange (the whole weaselly video is worth watching):
Shuster: When Rush says that all Republicans want the President to fail, Limbaugh’s wrong, right?
Fleischer: Well, David, I think this entire issue is nothing but ridiculous. You know, I’m reminded of a President, who, in his inaugural address said the following: “we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and… recriminations… that… have strangled our politics.” He cited Scripture and he said, “the time has come to set aside childish things.” Well, Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff is acting childish, and so is everybody else in the Democrat Party who is picking this ridiculous fight.
Fleischer also was an instrumental part of the organized, funded “Freedom’s Watch” effort to portray all Democrats as unpatriotic in the aftermath of the MoveOn “BetrayUs” ad. But, let’s not go down the Fleischer road. He’s more or less irrelevant. In an era when there has been a lot of talk about mutual respect, it is striking that a huge number of Republicans continue to go out of their way to use the epithet “Democrat Party” rather than the party’s actual name, the Democratic Party.
Out of curiosity, I googled the terms “Democrat Party” and “Democratic Party” on a bunch of political websites, particularly right-leaning ones. In Limbaugh’s case, there were 740 hits for “Democrat Party” site:rushlimbaugh.com, and 219 for “Democratic Party,” for a Democrat/Democratic percentage of 337.90%. By comparison, ours was 102 “Democrat”s and 897 “Democratic”s. This is not a scientific study, of course, it’s more an overall impression. It wouldn’t be worth anybody’s time to read every entry and comment that has ever been written or published on these sites, and obviously those google returns are substantially lower than the actual number of times the term has been used.
Even the Limbaugh/FiveThirtyEight comparison appears wildly closer than reality. Neither Nate nor I have ever used “Democrat Party”; that term is exclusively used as an epithet by conservatives in our Wild West comments section. Meanwhile, any listener knows Limbaugh’s real ratio is far higher than 3.4-to-1. He occasionally messes up and says “Democratic.” He used “Democrat” nine times in his CPAC speech, but slipped up and used “Democratic” once.
Those caveats aside, I believe the table is useful for a global impression.
I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile. During my On the Road trip, in my first McCain office stop in Reno, I interviewed a University of Nevada student volunteer named Brian Neppl about the McCain field office there. He was explaining something, referred to the “Democratic Party,” paused, apologized, and corrected himself: “Democrat Party.” What caught my attention was the un-self-consciousness with which he did it. Republicans, who have decades of think-tank fueled training in the precise use of words (think: Frank Luntz) seem to have a specific design.
The intent seems to be twofold: First, it seems to be an attempt at branding/labeling/controlling the way language sounds in an audience’s ears. Democrat apparently sounds “worse” than Democratic, and it’s also an attempt to separate the Democratic Party from small-d democratic, a popular American concept. If such a tactic nets votes, it’s objectively justifiable. Second, it’s designed to get under the skins of Democrats. From a Republican perspective, both seem to be independently important reasons to standardize the epithet.
As to the first goal, it’s unclear whether this could work, or whether, if it did, there would be any meaningful result that would ostensibly help further Republican fortunes at the ballot box. I’m open to hearing what this might be.
Musing out loud, if a critical building block in the Republican ideological persuasion strategy is first to argue that the media has a liberal bias, and media insists out of accuracy in using “Democratic” while actual Republican officeholders Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor, George Bush, et. al. use “Democrat,” then perhaps it subtly seems like the media is taking sides by choosing the correct term. Thus, the “liberal media” charge in turn has more merit, and that premise is critical in Republican argument given all the decades of incredible energy dedicated to that claim.
Another thought is that it’s a form of Josh Marshall’s “Bitch-Slap Theory” of politics that he formed in the Swiftboat context of the 2004 presidential campaign. Republicans “proved” John Kerry wasn’t tough enough to fight the War on Terror if he wasn’t tough enough to fight back against his smearers. So, Republicans may think the terminology it’s a form of baiting Democrats: ignore it and you’re letting the playground bully have his way with you, react to it and you’re reacting to something that has no actual harm associated with it. Dems look weak either way.
(It’s worth pointing out that one reason folks like Fleischer are fighting back with such vehemence is that the Limbaugh Strategy – specifically, requesting of other Republicans who are uniformly quaking in fear to stand up to Limbaugh’s comments – is the Bitch-Slap Theory turned on them. How tough can Republicans really be if they can’t stand up to the radio guy? Michael Steele is going to stand up to Al Qaeda?)
As for the second goal, the non-tactical, end-in-itself enjoyment of antagonizing Democrats, to use Fleischer’s term, is pure, uncut childishness. Moreover, it’s just boring. Newsflash – human beings have figured out a lot of ways to antagonize other human beings with pejoratives. It’s like Palin-as-hockey agitator, no great skill involved (and of course “Democrat Party” is a Palin staple). It’s literally the most basic childhood taunt – taking someone’s real name, and calling them something else to provoke a reaction. It’s the single-celled amoeba of verbal harassment. It’s unmistakable that much of the term’s use involves an attempt at agitation.
Again, objectively, there’s nothing wrong with Republicans methodically doing this – refusing the basic respect of allowing the Democratic Party its own name. They can elect their own behavior all they want; it’s a free country. Democrats may choose a reflexive reaction, but nobody “makes” you react, you have responsibility for how you react.
On the flip side of the coin, denying another person or group basic respect means that once the epithet escapes a Republican’s lips, he or she can’t complain when no respect is returned. Some Democrats aren’t bothered. Their perspective is that the very nature of such a tiny, repetitive jab, like a sibling flicking you on the shoulder, is that it pales in comparison with the constellation of behaviors that create actual wounds.
However, some Democrats find it to be a threshold issue in a conversation. It’s irrelevant whether it wounds; it’s a communication signal. If your behavior choice is a playground tactic, why should my behavior choice be to listen to what you say in whatever else is coming out of your mouth? You won’t agree to my name. I am supposed to take anything you say seriously? Couples therapists know a thing or two about this one. Respect is a threshold condition for listening.
If Republicans genuinely want Democrats to listen to their policy ideas, they shouldn’t use the term because it’s counterproductive. For example, when I hear the term, nothing else matters that comes out of that person’s mouth. That Republican has failed the threshold bad faith test, and who cares what they say?
By the same token, if Republicans don’t care if Democrats listen to them, which may indeed be the case for many, they don’t have to care about this sort of symbolic signal-sending. In last summer’s Republican National Convention party platform meeting, Republicans changed “Democrat Party” (ensconced in the official platform in 1996) to “Democratic Party.” Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour grudgingly admitted that probably they shouldn’t act like kids and instead use the real term, “at least in writing.”
While the terminology is trivial in some ways, the same way that emphasis of Obama’s middle name is trivial (it is his name), there is a serious policy extension of the tactic. This threshold issue of withholding basic respect underlies historical Republican demonization of gays, blacks, immigrants, and other groups. Republicans may protest that conclusion, but think of Limbaugh’s “Halfrican,” or try talking to an Arab-American while saying everything normally and rationally except always calling Barack Obama: Barack Hussein Obama. Do you think the rest of whatever else you say will be heard? When Sean Hannity uses “Hussein,” over and over, he is not trying to convince an undecided to adopt his viewpoint, and certainly not persuade an Obama supporter to come around to his way of thinking. He’s speaking to the home crowd, his intent is to use the word as a weapon.
One of the reasons the “childish” party of Fleischer and Limbaugh is having such a tough time in the wilderness is they’ve done a too-clever-by-half job figuring out how to systematically weaponize language. There’s no referee. It’s their right. It’s also no great parlor trick, and you can go to any grade-school playground and find the same. The day Republicans work to signal good faith by policing their own house on basic respect in language will probably run parallel with the day we’ll see the party reborn as an ideologically grownup force.