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strategery

A term coined for a Saturday Night Live sketch mocking George W. Bush and his reputation for mispronouncing words during the first presidential debate in 2000.

Comedian Will Ferrell played Bush in the sketch and was asked by the debate moderator to summarize “the best argument for his campaign.” His answer was “strategery.”

After the 2000 presidential election, the Washington Post reported that Bush staffers reportedly began using the term as a joke and even referred to the president’s political team as “The Department of Strategery.”

Bush himself used the term in a 2001 interview with CNN, presumably as a self-deprecating nod to the comedy sketch.

six year itch

The election held in the 6th year of a president’s tenure in which the party holding the White House historically loses a substantial number of House and Senate seats.

The Atlantic: “For decades political analysts have been intrigued by an ironclad pattern in American politics: the President’s party loses seats in the off-year election that follows his White House triumph–a phenomenon that has occurred in every off-year election save one since the Civil War. Since the Second World War, off-year losses for the President’s party in the House have averaged fifteen seats in the second year and forty-eight in the sixth; in the Senate the average losses are zero in the second year and seven in the sixth.”

Charlie Cook: “There are a variety of reasons, but at that midway point in a party’s second four years in the White House, the ‘in’ party tends to lose energy and focus. Party leaders run out of ideas, and the ‘first team’ in terms of personnel—the people who were there when the president took office—have often bailed out, and the second or third team is sometimes not as good. Voters tend to grow weary and to look for something different.”

suspended campaign

Federal law does not define or officially recognize the act of a presidential candidate “suspending” their campaign instead of formally ending it.

CNN: “Practically speaking, if a candidate removes him- or herself from the race without the intent of re-entering at a later date, then there is not a big difference between ‘suspending’ a campaign vs. dropping out entirely. The end result is usually the same: the candidate is no longer seeking that particular office… That said, there are two main differences between ‘suspending’ and ending a presidential campaign: delegates and money.”

Candidates who suspend their campaigns usually get to keep any delegates they’ve won and can continue to raise money beyond what’s needed to retire their campaign debts. In contrast, candidates who actually drop out of a race, usually have to forfeit certain delegates and are limited in how they can raise future funds.

Slate: “The phrase has been employed at least as far back as the 1970s and continues to serve as the most popular way for candidates to end their primary bids without closing down their campaign committees.”

stalking horse

A candidate put forward in an election to conceal an anonymous person’s potential candidacy. If the idea of the campaign proves viable, the anonymous person can then declare their interest and run with little risk of failure.

A stalking horse candidate is also sometimes used to divide the opposition in order to help another candidate.

Daryl Lyman: “The expression originated hundreds of years ago in old English hunting practices, especially among fowlers. Many kinds of game that would flee at the first sign of humans would not be alarmed by the approach of a horse. Therefore, fowlers trained horses to serve as covers during hunting.”

smell of jet fuel

A reference to the impatience that sets in when Members of Congress are ready to leave Washington, D.C. to return to their districts for the weekend or a legislative recess.

Senate hold

The means by which a senator informally signals his objection to a bill or nomination.

Most congressional actions clear parliamentary hurdles by “unanimous consent” of the Senate, so a senator who intends to object to such procedures can, effectively, hold up the action.  He may announce his intentions publicly or, more frequently, inform his party leader and place a “secret hold” on an action.  Holds have become more common since the 1970s, when the Senate began using many more unanimous consent agreements to advance a greater volume of legislation, and opponents have suggested many changes to reform or abolish the practice.

The most recent challenges to this custom include a 2010 letter in which 69 senators pledged not to place holds and a 2011 resolution declaring that, in the case of secret holds, either a senator’s identity is revealed after two days or the hold is assigned to the party leader.  The latter of these reforms has been easily circumvented by the tag-team hold.

Sister Souljah moment

The public repudiation of an extremist person or statement perceived to have some association with a politician or his party.

It’s a strategy designed to signal to centrist voters to show that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party.

Robert Schlesinger: “Back in the summer of 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton criticized rapper Sister Souljah after she made offensive remarks about blacks killing whites instead of each other. The moment quickly entered the political lexicon as shorthand for a politician rebuking an extremist in his or her base in order to demonstrate to independents that they are not beholden to the party’s core special interests.”

Joan Vennochi: “This so-called ‘Sister Souljah moment’ — a calculated denunciation of an extremist position or special interest group — wrapped Clinton in a warm centrist glow just in time for the general election.”

Spin Alley

The place designated after a political debate where reporters interview analysts and campaign operatives who attempt to “spin” the news coverage of the event.

A video from the 2008 presidential campaign shows what “spin alley” looked like after a debate in New Hampshire.

Political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow: “After the debate, I took the press shuttle back to the media center — and to the small section therein blatantly designated ‘Spin Alley,’ ringed on three sides by bare-bones makeshift broadcast platforms and stuffed to capacity with reporters, camera crews and politicos. Everywhere you looked there were clusters of media people surrounding spinners and surrogates, whose names were printed on laminated red signs held high above the crowd by aides. I felt like I was standing in the middle of one of my own damn cartoons come to life.”

strange bedfellows

An unusual political alliance.

The term comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest when a storm causes Trinculo to seek shelter under a sheet with Caliban, whom he regards as an enemy. “There is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.”

stemwinder

A rousing political speech that galvanizes a crowd to take action.

The Word Detective notes the term is “one of those grand old words that have traveled so far from their origins that nearly all traces of their beginnings have faded from popular culture.”

Slate: “The term dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the stem-winding watch came into vogue. The newfangled timepiece was a vast improvement over its predecessor, the key-wound watch, because the mechanism for setting it was a stem actually attached to the watch, rather than a key that was easily and frequently misplaced. This technological advance was so widely appreciated that, by the end of the 1800s, the term stemwinder had taken on the figurative meaning of ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding,’ or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, ‘a person or thing that is first rate. …'”

snollygoster

A politician who will go to any lengths to win public office, regardless of party affiliation or platform.

One of the earliest references comes from the Columbus Dispatch in October 28, 1895 which defined the term as “a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform, or principles, and who… gets there by sheer force of monumental talknophical asumnancy.”

According to Vintage Vocabulary, President Harry Truman revived its use  in 1952. Talking about politicians who like to make a show of public prayer, he said, “I wish some of these snollygosters would read the New Testament and perform accordingly.”

Time notes Truman’s tone “left no doubt that a snollygoster was a low creature indeed, but few, if any, of his hearers knew what snollygoster meant.”

A related term is carpetbagger.

sacred cow

Any program, policy, or person that is regarded as being beyond attack or untouchable. The term references the status held by cows in Hindu culture, where the cow is regarded as a sacred animal.

In American politics, Social Security has been considered a sacred cow because it is so politically popular that most politicians would never support ending the program.

“Sacred Cow” was also the nickname of the first military aircraft used to transport a United States president.  According to the National Museum of the Air Force, President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew in the Sacred Cow to meet Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin in the USSR for the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

soft power

The ability to obtain what one wants through co-option rather than the use of coercion.

The phrase was first coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in the late 1980s and is now widely used in international affairs.

From Nye’s book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics: “Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power — the ability to coerce — grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”

Shermanesque statement

A Shermanesque statement is a clear and direct statement by a potential political candidate indicating that he or she will not run for a particular office.

The term is derived from a remark made by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman when he was being considered as a possible Republican candidate for president in 1884. Sherman declined, saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

In modern times, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared he would not run for a second term in 1968 by saying, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Likewise, Gen. David Petraeus made a similar pledge in 2010 saying, “I thought I’ve said ‘no’ as many ways as I could. I will not ever run for political office, I can assure you of that.”

Sergeant-at-Arms

The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate each have a sergeant-at-arms, whose job it is to maintain order in the legislative chamber. 

In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms can also be instructed to request the presence of senators if not enough senators are present to meet a quorum.  If the motion to instruct the sergeant-at-arms does not bring in enough senators, the sergeant-at-arms can be instructed to write arrest warrants for all absent senators and is then required to hunt them down and bring them to the floor.

Shivercrats

Shivercrats were a conservative faction of the Texas Democratic Party in the 1950s named for Texas Gov. Allan Shivers (D).

The term was first used in 1952 after Shivers backed Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

Interestingly, Lyndon B. Johnson initially aligned himself with the Shivercrats as a U.S. Senator but increasingly sided with liberals on domestic policy after becoming president in 1963. Most of the Shivercrats ended up leaving the Democratic party as the liberal-moderate faction took control of the state party after 1970.

stump speech

A stump speech is a standard campaign speech used by someone running for public office.

The term derives from the early American custom in which candidates campaigned from town to town and stood upon a sawed off tree stump to deliver their speech. Because a candidate might hit many towns in a single day, he typically used the same speech in each place and customized the beginning to include specific mentions of local officials and supporters.

split ticket

A split ticket is when a voter chooses candidates from different political parties in the same election.

straight ticket

Voting a straight ticket is when a voter chooses all of the candidates of the same party.

To facilitate straight ticket voting, some jurisdictions may allow voters to pull a lever or check a single box to choose all the candidates of a particular party.

Swiftboating

An untrue or unfair political attack or smear campaign.

The term comes from the 2004 presidential campaign when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced a series of television ads and a bestselling book that challenged Kerry’s military record and criticized his subsequent antiwar activities. Kerry himself had served for four months as a swift boat commander in Vietnam.

The term “swiftboating” soon became used to describe political tactics of the group.

smoke-filled room

Typically a place where secret political deal-making occurs. In earlier times, many political operatives smoked cigars which filled the rooms with smoke.

Encyclopedia of Chicago: “The original smoke-filled room was in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, where, according to an enduring legend, a small group of powerful United States senators gathered to arrange the nomination of Warren G. Harding as Republican candidate for president in 1920… when the Associated Press reported that Harding had been chosen ‘in a smoke-filled room,’ the phrase entered the American political lexicon. Ever since, ‘smoke-filled room’ has meant a place, behind the scenes, where cigar-smoking party bosses intrigue to choose candidates.”

sine die

Without any future date being designated for resumption from the Latin term meaning “without a day.” An adjournment sine die signifies the end of an annual or special legislative session.

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