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rally round the flag

The “rally round the flag” effect is when there’s a short-term surge in voter approval as the nation unites behind its leader during a crisis or emergency situation.

Political scientist John Mueller described the phenomenon in a 1970 landmark paper called “Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson.” Mueller defined it as arising from an event with three qualities: it’s international, it involved the country as a whole and it’s specific and dramatic.

One of the most prominent examples of the effect is when President George W. Bush saw a 39% increase in his approval rating — from 51% to 90 — following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Other examples include President Jimmy Carter’s approval jumping 26 percentage points following the initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979 and President George H.W. Bush receiving a 30 percentage point bounce following the success of Operation Dessert Storm in 1991.

More recently, the effect has been less pronounced. President Barack Obama received a six-point bounce following the mission to kill Osama bin Laden and President Donald Trump saw a slight bump in approval after the global outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020.

sandbagging

Sandbagging is deceptive behavior intended to lower someone’s expectations so that they can be taken by surprise later.

Typically, sandbagging involves lulling someone into a false sense of security and then taking advantage of them. It’s an act of psychological manipulation. Imagine a pool shark, for example, who lets their target win a few rounds of pool before they up the ante and suddenly start winning.

Originally, of course, “sandbagging” simply meant to furnish with sandbags. The word took on its modern meaning of pretending weakness in the 1970s. Etymologists believe that the modern meaning comes from poker, where a “sandbagger” is someone who holds back from raising because they want to keep their opponents in the game for longer. There is also an older meaning of the word “sandbagger,” to mean a bully who uses a sandbag as a weapon.

After the 2020 Iowa caucus, some people on the left claimed that the Democratic party leadership had “sandbagged” Bernie Sanders. Exit polls appeared to put Sanders neck and neck with Pete Buttigieg, and both candidates declared victory in the state. Sanders supporters, including Michael Moore, for example, argued that DNC chair Tom Perez called for a recount in the state precisely to avoid a Sanders victory.

Michael Moore told reporters, “Bernie was going to have that press conference explaining why he won Iowa, and they [Perez and the DNC leadership] did that [call for recanvassing] to sandbag him.”

Sanders supporters made similar accusations against the DNC in 2016. So did members of the media. In 2016, the New York Post reported that “Democratic party bigwigs enlisted prominent media outlets to slant coverage to boost Hillary Clinton and sandbag Bernie Sanders, according to some of the 19,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s servers and posted to Wikileaks.”

Journalists are sometimes accused of sandbagging too. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine charged that the New York Times had sandbagged Bernie Sanders. The Rolling Stone claimed that the New York Times had initially planned an article explaining Bernie Sanders’ legislative approach but had revamped the article to criticize Sanders’ campaign.

“Sandbag” can be sometimes thrown around without a lot of precision. In some cases, the word is used interchangeably with the term “ambush.” Reporters are sometimes accused of sandbagging politicians when they confront them with unwelcome questions, for example. In other cases, “sandbag” is used simply to mean “harm.” Prospect magazine, for example, accused President Trump of trying to “sandbag” the American economy by launching a trade war with Europe.

However, sandbagging is different than obstructionism.

And sometimes, a sandbag is just a sandbag. In 2016, a group of activists wanted to protest against the planned wall between the US and Mexico. The group, mostly designers, launched a campaign called “Wall in Trump.” The idea was to collect sandbags and build a 200-foot wall in front of one of Donald Trump’s skyscrapers. (Trump, a presidential candidate at the time, had angered the group with his plans to build a border wall.) The designers said they wanted their sandbag wall to be “just big enough to retain this guy’s ego.”

death panels

“Death panels” was a political term which falsely referred to the supposed dangers posed by the Affordable Care Act. Some opponents of the law, better known as Obamacare, argued that government-run healthcare could lead to a kind of de-facto euthanasia, if preferential treatment was given to certain tiers of society.

The term “death panels” was coined by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. In a Facebook post on August 7, 2009, Palin wrote.

“The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Conservative newspapers and commentators quickly agreed with Palin’s claims. Rush Limbaugh said that Palin was “dead right,” and others followed suit. Members of the Tea Party were also quick to get on board with claims about the death panels. And more centrist Republicans also agreed. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told a crowd of his supporters, “We should not have a government program that determines you’re gonna pull the plug on Grandma.”

Politifact later named Palin’s “death panels” statement the “lie of the year” for 2009. Politifact also pointed out the Palin was not the first conservative to make dramatic claims about Obamacare and vulnerable members of society.

Earlier in 2009, a conservative commentator and former lieutenant governor of New York named Betsy McCaughey issued some dire warnings about Obamacare. McCaughey said that “Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.” she said on a radio show.

McCaughey was wrong – Obamacare did not require seniors to attend counseling. She may have been referring to a provision in which Medicare would pay for doctors’ appointments for patients who wanted to set up their living wills and other end-of-life issues. However, the rumor continued to spread, and it took years for it to die down. As late as 2016, the Washington Post reported that 29 percent of Americans believed that death panels would ration healthcare resources.

Nearly a decade later, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) also took to social media to talk about death panels. Ocasio Cortez wrote on Twitter that private insurance companies effectively had their own death panels:

Actually, we have for-profit “death panels” now: they are companies and boards saying you’re on your own because they won’t cover a critical procedure or medicine. Maybe if the GOP stopped hiding behind this “socialist” rock they love to throw, they’d actually engage on-issue for once.

smoking gun

In politics, the term “smoking gun” refers to a piece of evidence that definitively proves a crime or wrongdoing by an official.

The term originated from the idea that finding a gun that’s still smoldering on a murder suspect would almost certainly prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, being just one step away from catching the suspect doing the action itself.

The most famous example of a piece of “smoking gun” evidence in the history of politics is the Nixon “Smoking Gun” tape, which was a recording of Nixon speaking with Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972. The existence of this “smoking gun” recording directly led to the resignation of Nixon.

Nixon released the tape several weeks after it was recorded. On the tape you can hear three conversations Nixon had with Halderman soon after the infamous Watergate break-in. On the tape, Nixon admits to ordering a cover-up and encouraging the FBI to abandon its investigation.

The Nixon “smoking gun tape” had enormous consequences for the country and the presidency, as described in a Washington Post article commemorating the 40th anniversary of its release:

Yet the smoking-gun tape is still important because of what it tells us about the presidency in general. Because the bottom line of the White House order to ‘turn off’ the FBI’s investigation was that, for the most part, it didn’t work.

Since the Nixon tape and resignation, the term “smoking gun” has been used in the context of other political scandals.

Today, the term is used often to describe evidence in a scandal that could potentially provide irrefutable proof. The New Republic talks about why it is not always necessary:

That said, there may not turn out to be a “smoking gun”… If this or the next Congress follows precedent and reads history correctly, that won’t matter. In the case of Richard Nixon, the House Judiciary Committee had already voted to impeach him on three Articles of Impeachment before a recording emerged of Nixon telling an aide to order Pentagon officials to call the FBI to urge it to call off their investigation of Watergate.

During the investigation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails and her server, Republicans searching for definitive proof of wrongdoing, or a “smoking gun,” either found it or didn’t find it, depending on what side of the aisle you were on.

More recently, during the impeachment of Donald Trump, many referred to the transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president as a “smoking gun,” as outlined in the fall of 2019 by publications like Mother Jones or in this Roll Call article: “We now have the smoking-gun summary, the most incriminating White House document since Watergate. Even with ellipses and maybe redactions for national security reasons, the reconstruction of Donald Trump’s July 25 conversation with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is chilling in its specificity.”

Others would disagree, and of course in the case of Trump, the “smoking gun” outlined in the Roll Call article would not lead to his removal from office.

In 1997, a website called The Smoking Gun was launched to expose wrongdoing by officials and people in the public eye. They authenticate their reporting by “using material obtained from government and law enforcement sources, via Freedom of Information requests, and from court files nationwide.” One of the most famous cases of wrongdoing uncovered by The Smoking Gun was the fabrication of author James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces.

mission accomplished moment

Mission Accomplished moment

A Mission Accomplished moment has come to mean any grandiose declaration of success which later rings false.

On May 1, 2003, President George W Bush delivered a speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” the president told a crowd of cheering service members. Bush delivered the televised speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging above his head.

Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech was widely praised at the time, with journalists comparing the president to Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Later, as the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the speech was sharply criticized and came to symbolize a premature announcement of victory.

Years later, President Barack Obama had his own “mission accomplished” moment. In a speech on October 21, 2011, Obama told Americans that the “long war” in Iraq was finally over and that he was bringing US troops back home. Obama said the troop drawdown in Iraq was part of a wider trend towards peace:

“The end of war in Iraq reflects a larger transition,” the president said. “The tide of war is receding. Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. The long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year. The transition in Afghanistan is moving forward, and our troops are finally coming home.”

As it happened, Obama’s declaration of victory was premature and he, too, was widely criticized when the rise of ISIS led to a dramatic upsurge of violence in Iraq.

During his first years in office, President Trump had several “mission accomplished” moments. In October 2019, Trump announced that his administration had helped broker a ceasefire that would bring peace to Syria and the broader region. He tweeted,

“This is a great day for civilization. I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but unconventional path. People have been trying to make this “Deal” for many years. Millions of lives will be saved. Congratulations to ALL!”

Fact checkers found that the president had dramatically exaggerated his accomplishments. “The agreement he is hailing is not nearly as consequential to the prospects for peace as he claims,” the AP wrote at the time, noting that the five-day ceasefire was unlikely to lead to a lasting peace in the region.

In 2020, Trump appeared to have a separate “mission accomplished” moment involving the coronavirus. On February 2, the president told Fox News that his administration had “shut down” the deadly virus:

“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” Trump told Sean Hannity. “But we can’t have thousands of people coming in who may have this problem, the coronavirus. So, we’re going to see what happens, but we did shut it down, yes.”

As it happened, the coronavirus continued to spread quickly both in the United States and around the world, in spite of repeated assurances from the president that the disease was “under control.”

battleground state

The terms “battleground state” and “swing state” refer to states that have closely divided support for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. They are also sometimes called “purple states.”

Presidential campaigns are waged mainly in these battleground states as the outcomes in most other states on the electoral map are mostly known well ahead of the election.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, there was an uptick in the term’s use in 1980 before a significant jump in the very tight 2000 presidential election. Swing state was a more popular term for closely contested states in presidential politics beginning in the 1960s.

By 2004, “battleground state” overtook swing state in popularity but both phrases are still used by most journalists.

University of Minnesota Professor Eric Ostermeier analyzed the frequency of use for both phrases during the 2012 presidential election and found a spectrum of usage from ABC News’ 2.5-to-1 ratio of battleground state to swing state to MSNBC’s 1.8-to-1 ratio of swing state to battleground state.

In contrast, the similar phrase “toss up state” was used only 29 times in the six months of reviewed reports.

dirty tricks

dirty tricks

“Dirty tricks” are actions taken by a political campaign or candidate to damage their opponents that may involve unethical, distasteful, or illegal behaviors.

Political candidates and parties have used dirty tricks dating back to the early years of the American Republic. In the 1828 election, President Andrew Jackson was accused of executing his own men in war, adultery, and cannibalism by supporters of John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s supporters responded by accusing Adams of procuring sex workers for the Russian czar and using public funds for his billiards habit.

This term’s use in the political world, however, is not found until 1963 according to Merriam-Webster. Dirty tricks gained traction thanks to the machinations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. During the 1964 election, CIA operatives infiltrated the campaign of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater to disrupt his efforts against Johnson. The Johnson campaign also briefly ran the infamous Daisy ad, a television spot that implied Goldwater would lead the U.S. into nuclear annihilation.

Dirty tricks went from an insider term to a publicly known concept due to the Watergate scandal. Nixon and his administration orchestrated a break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in June 1972. The Nixon campaign also employed operatives to damage the reputations of Democratic leaders prior to the general election. These acts along with the subsequent cover-up led to a potential impeachment and Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows sustained use of dirty tricks in English language publications following Watergate. The 1988 presidential election highlighted modern uses of dirty tricks with the race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

The Bush campaign employed advisor Lee Atwater, who created the template for future methods of dirty attacks. Atwater was the mind behind the “Revolving Doors” TV ad that tied Dukakis to a murder committed by furloughed convict Willie Horton.  This ad and rumors spread by Republicans about Kitty Dukakis burning an American flag during a protest flipped a Dukakis polling advantage into a Bush victory.

In the 21st century, technological advances and the prevalence of independent political groups have enhanced the power of dirty tricks. In 2004, ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempted to discredit Democratic nominee John Kerry’s campaign against President George W. Bush. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president deployed dirty tricks ranging from asking Russia to hack opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails to the use of social media to spread rumors of Clinton’s health.

Examples

Roll Call (July 2, 2019): “With a single tweet Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump again harked back to his 2016 election victory and suggested Democrats are poised to use dirty tricks to prevent him from winning again.”

The Washington Post (March 9, 2018): “As his orders to Colson show, Nixon was at the center of this dirty tricks campaign. He devised specific plots to attack his enemies, creating a climate of corruption that led to Watergate.”

The Guardian (February 25, 2008): “Barack Obama’s campaign team today accused Hillary Clinton’s beleaguered staff of mounting a desperate dirty tricks operation by circulating a picture of him in African dress, feeding into false claims on US websites that he is a Muslim.”

Earth Day

Earth Day

Earth Day is an annual event celebrated on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection. First celebrated in 1970, it now includes events coordinated globally in more than 193 countries.

The event emerged against the backdrop of an anti-war student activist movement. While it’s tempting to assume that Earth Day was the result of a youthful grassroots campaign, it was actually spearheaded through a rare bipartisan partnership between Democratic and Republican lawmakers:

Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, horrified by a series of environmental catastrophes that seemingly escaped public outrage and action, was inspired by the success of the youth anti-war movement to replicate a similar movement for environmental protection. The idea was a national “teach-in on the environment” to raise public awareness about air and water pollution. To achieve this goal, Nelson reached across the aisle to Republican Congressman, Pete McCloskey.

The first Earth Day celebrations took place across two thousand colleges and universities and hundreds of communities across the United States. More importantly, it “brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform.”

Today, Earth Day celebrations have grown to be a major global event and is celebrated in many different ways.

contested convention

contested convention

A “contested convention,” sometimes also referred to as a “brokered convention,” occurs when no single candidate for president secures the majority of delegates needed to win a political party’s nomination in advance of that party’s convention.

When that happens, a candidate might still get enough delegates by the time that the convention’s first ballot starts, but if that fails to occur, then the delegates become free to vote for whichever candidate they want, leading to a situation in which the convention becomes ‘contested’ or ‘brokered.’

In a contested convention, depending on the rules of the party, all regular delegates who were pledged to support a certain candidate during the primary voting process are “released” and can be convinced to support someone else.

For most people who follow politics, a contested convention conjures up images of “multiple ballots, horse-trading, smoke-filled rooms, favorite sons, dark horses and other colorful elements that have enlivened American political journalism…,” as described by Pew Research.

Parties try to avoid contested conventions because they typically signal that a party is fractured, split and not unified going into a presidential election.

But that doesn’t stop the speculation that precedes almost every convention. From the Washington Post: “Speculation about a brokered, deadlocked or contested political convention surfaces every four years with the regularity of Brigadoon rising from the mist…. Such predictions show up in virtually every cycle when there’s even a hint of the possibility — usually early on, when a platoon of still-viable candidates suggests that a divided primary contest will fail to produce a winner.”

But as frequently as they’re predicted, contested conventions have almost never come to pass in the modern electoral system.

From The Week: “Since the GOP’s first convention in 1856, there have been 10 presidential elections in which no Republican candidate came into the convention with a majority of delegates. In seven of those elections, the eventual nominee was not the person who had the most delegates at the start of the convention. Of those 10 brokered conventions, six of them produced a Republican nominee who went on to win the general election Since 1952, no convention — Republican or Democratic — has gone beyond the first ballot.”

That year, in a hot and stuffy Chicago, Adlai Stevenson blew the Democratic convention wide open, and was eventually nominated for president on the third ballot.

In 1984, there was a close call when Democrat Walter Mondale arrived at the Democratic convention 40 delegates short of outright victory. But when the superdelegates supported him, it pushed him over the top to the nomination.

The modern primary system still awaits its first truly contested convention.

alternative facts

alternative facts

Alternative facts was a phrase coined by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway to defend a false statement by press secretary Sean Spicer about the attendance of President Trump’s inauguration.

When pressed during an interview to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood”, Conway stated that Spicer was simply giving “alternative facts.”

As the Washington Post noted, this “wasn’t the first time the Trump team and its supporters have responded to journalists calling out their falsehoods by claiming the truth isn’t so black and white or that it’s not a big deal.”

Indeed, many said it’s part of a broader “gaslighting” strategy used by Trump and his allies to control public discussion.

In discussing the origins of the phrase, Psychology Today notes that George Orwell wrote the novel 1984 “which portrays a totalitarian state that limited freedom of thought by creating its own language called ‘Newspeak.’ The political purpose of of Newspeak was to reduce the English language to simple concepts that reinforced the totalitarian dominance of the State. Moreover, words with negative meanings were removed, such that ‘bad’ became ‘ungood.'”

Many news reports also described Conway’s use of the phrase as “Orwellian.” Within four days of the interview, sales of George Owell’s book 1984 had risen by 9,500%.

gaslighting

gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group. It makes them question their own memory, perception and sanity.

The tactic relies on persistent denial, contradiction and lying in an attempt to delegitimize the victim’s belief.

gaslightingThe term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, and subsequent 1944 film adaptation, in which a murdering husband manipulates and confuses his wife by dimming the gas lights in their home and then denying it’s happening.

Psychology Today: “It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.”

Psychologist Bryant Welch, who wrote a 2008 book entitled State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, told NBC News that President Donald Trump uses the tactic regularly with the American people.

Said Welch: “The very state of confusion they are creating is a political weapon in and of itself. If you make people confused, they are vulnerable. By definition they don’t know what to do.”

He added: “You come in and undercut their trust in the established sources of information. It tells them to go ahead and hate this person who is delivering bad news. Then you begin to substitute your own news, your own version of reality. If Donald Trump can undercut America’s trust in all media, he then starts to own them and can start to literally implant his own version of reality.”

For a related discussion, see “alternative facts.”

samizdat

A form of underground press commonly available in eastern European countries with state-owned media sources. Samizdat typically is a grassroots way to distribute censored content to citizens who otherwise would not have access to this material.  It can take many forms; books, magazines, newspapers, or other types of censored media such as film and photography are commonly reproduced.

Consumers of samizdat historically have been educated citizens, and sometimes those with great political or social influence.  Samizdat has been disguised with book covers or alternative, accepted literary disguises.

Other forms can include banned religious texts or artwork that are not seen acceptable for a nation’s society.

one-house bill

A one-house bill is introduced by a legislator for the purpose of grandstanding or to demonstrate their effort to fulfill political promises without the ability to actually pass the bill into law.

One-house bills are often introduced to congress by members of the minority party, even when they do not have the support to pass these bills in the other legislative chamber.

running between the raindrops

To dodge or deflect repeated political attacks. “Running between the raindrops” is used to describe actions taken by politicians to avoid political aggression from other candidates or the media.

In other circumstances, “running between the raindrops” may be used to describe politicians who are able to deflect scandals or pass blame onto others while still in office.

ranked choice voting

ranked-choice voting

Ranked-choice voting is an alternative to plurality elections —  which are when whoever receives the most votes wins, even if they don’t earn a majority of all votes.

Bangor Daily News: “Voters can rank as many of the candidates as they wish as their first, second and third choices, and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of all votes cast, the last-place candidate is eliminated from contention. The ballots from voters who ranked that candidate first are re-examined and all of their second-choice votes are added to the first-round totals. This continues until a candidate receives a majority of all votes cast and is declared the winner.”

Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016 and the state released a cartoon explaining how it worked:

FairVote has a list of jurisdictions that currently use ranked-choice voting.

sit-in

A form of peaceful protest that involves sitting down and occupying space, often preventing access to a business or public space.

Sit-ins are a common form of protest in the US, and have been around since the late 1930s. During the Civil Rights Movement, sit-ins were one of the main ways to protest segregation in restaurants, parks, universities, and other places.

Sit-ins are still considered an effective form of peaceful protest for their visibility and peaceful tactics.

History: “The Greensboro sit-in was a civil rights protest that started in 1960, when young African-American students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave after being denied service. The sit-in movement soon spread to college towns throughout the South. Though many of the protesters were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, their actions made an immediate and lasting impact, forcing Woolworth’s and other establishments to change their segregationist policies.”

scalawag

A “scalawag” is a pejorative term for a white southerner who supported Reconstruction efforts in the south in the late 1800s. They are often associated with carpetbaggers, who were their northern counterparts.

The term was used by southern Democrats who were not in favor of Reconstruction policies. The term originally was used to refer to a useless farm animal, so being called a scalawag was equal to being called a useless person. They were viewed as even lower than carpetbaggers, because they were seen as traitors to the culture they grew up in.

A scalawag could have supported Reconstruction for many reasons. Some believed in giving rights to Black people. Others were poor and saw the advantages of added labor to revitalize the economy. Others were just Republicans who supported the sought to fix the reputation of the South. However, the connotation of the word implies that scalawags only supported the policy for personal gain.

History: “Scalawags had diverse backgrounds and motives, but all of them shared the belief that they could achieve greater advancement in a Republican South than they could by opposing Reconstruction. Taken together, scalawags made up roughly 20 percent of the white electorate and wielded a considerable influence. Many also had political experience from before the war, either as members of Congress or as judges or local officials.”

send them a message

To “send them a message” is a call to action from a politician telling supporters to use their political capital to voice their opinion.

This can be performed in many ways. A protest can be sending a message, because it shows large support for or against an issue. The same goes for political donations. The most typical call for a message to be sent is through voting. A politician may call on the people to “send them a message” to America by voting for them, and showing that a majority of people support a certain policy.

sharp-elbowed

In politics, the term “sharp-elbowed” refers to being aggressive and assertive when it comes to pursuing a legislative agenda or pushing one’s point of view.

The phrase is traditionally intended to describe a positive attribute in a politician, suggesting that having “sharp elbows” is the opposite of being a legislative pushover or being too quick to compromise. In 1984, renowned linguist William Safire noted in the New York Times: “a change of connotation is taking place in the political use of the word. Not long ago, to have sharp elbows was not considered a compliment, as was apparent in the calumniation of Mr. Strauss. Today, a politician without elbows is as lost as a politician without principles. The display of elbows is evidence of necessary macho.”

In the same article, Safire noted an early use of the metaphor: ‘”’No man lives without jostling and being jostled,’’ wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1838. ‘’In all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.’”

As described by famed political operative James Carville: “You have to have sharp elbows if you want to change something.”

Over the years, many politicians have been described as having “sharp elbows”, including Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Andrew Cuomo, and Nancy Pelosi.

While the term is most often use to refer to legislators or politicians running for office, it can be used to describe an event as well, as when the Los Angeles Times called the 2015 GOP debate “sharp-elbowed.”

In 2010, an ABA Journal article reported on a trove of 11,000 emails about Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan, which revealed her to be a “sharp-elbowed and sometimes salty-tongued lawyer.”

And in 2015, the Economist used the term to refer to the wealthy in Britain, saying: “With their sharp elbows, the argument goes, the wealthy jostle others out of the way in the queue for doctors’ appointments, school places and other scarce public services.”

More recently, some have started to decry the sharp-elbowed nature of politics. From a 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal: “…in today’s highly polarized political environment, replete with the sharp-elbowed tactics of Washington infighting, much of [Martin Luther] King’s work has apparently been forgotten.”

slogan

A short and catchy phrase used to promote a candidate or idea. Slogans attempt to be memorable so that people remember the person behind them more easily.

Examples of slogans used for candidates are: I Like Ike (Eisenhower); Make America Great Again (Reagan and Trump); and Yes We Can (Obama). Slogans used for ideas include: Better Dead than Red (anti-Communist); Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men (19th century GOP); and Me Too/Time’s Up (sexual assault awareness)

obstructionism

The act of deliberately stalling, delaying, or preventing legislation from being passed. It has a negative connotation, as politicians do not want to be seen as preventing progress.

Obstructionist politicians are typically either a a party with control of one branch or house of a legislature, or part of a minority party with enough of a plurality to prevent legislation (like through a filibuster)

Obstructionism is often a useful tool for an opposition party.

Politico: “Still, for the most part, obstructionism worked. Americans always tell pollsters they want politicians to work together, but as Washington Democrats decide how to approach the Trump era from the minority, they will be keenly aware that the Republican Party’s decision to throw sand in the gears of government throughout the Obama era helped the Republican Party wrest unified control of that government.”

smear

To use false information and accusations to harm the reputation of another person.

A smear campaign is repeated uses of this to try to destroy another person’s reputation, typically to make them lose an election.

Psychology Today says that smear tactics work: “Assuming that acceptance of these slurs is related to voting choice, this suggests that in some cases, political slandering works. And not only that, it works on the group that is perhaps most important in swinging an election: politically undecided individuals. We may report hating these slanderous statements. But, it appears that they might make up our minds for us when we haven’t already.”

separate but equal

The infamous justification for the decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the case that formally legalized segregation. The justification behind the decision was that segregation was Constitutional as long as both black and white Americans had equal protection under the law.

Of course, the idea of ‘separate but equal’ was not followed at all, and segregation led to a huge disparity in access to nearly every aspect of life for many Black Americans. The 1956 Brown v Board of Education case would overturn the separate but equal doctrine, saying that separate could not possibly be equal.

Time: “The case reached the Supreme Court in 1896, and the court ruled that Louisiana’s law, calling for ‘equal but separate’ facilities on trains, was constitutional. The majority opinion held that Negroes were equal to whites ‘civilly and politically,’ but not ‘socially.’

In 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court finally declared what Americans could long have seen with their own eyes: that which was kept separate was inherently unequal. “Even if physical facilities are equal, said the court,there are intangible factors which prevent ‘separate’ from being ‘equal,’””

slow-walk

In politics, “slow walk” is a term used to describe an effort to prevent legislation or a political process from moving forward by intentionally slowing it down to a crawl. Another similar term is “obstructionism.”

The origin of the term “slow walk” itself is believed to be from equestrianism, where horses would drag their feet instead of using their normal gait.

Journalist Ruth walker gives some insight into its political use in a 2017 Christian Science Monitor article, calling slow walking a “new(ish) term of art for resistance that moves at a stately pace, adding: “Winter isn’t always the best time of year to get regular exercise. But I keep seeing references to an activity apparently as well suited to the corridors of power in Washington as to the snow-slushy streets of Boston: the slow walk.”

While the term’s widespread use in politics is fairly recent, the actual act of “slowing down” legislation or other political actions has a long history in the halls of Congress.

In 1988, noted linguist William Safire interpreted the use the term “slow walk” in politics as possibly having Southern origins, more specifically from the early 1970s in Tennessee. In his column, he quotes a famed Tennessee Senator:“’People slow-walk things, you know, especially if you’ve got a cutoff date,’ said Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, complaining to reporters last summer about the obfuscation he had faced from the White House in his investigation of campaign finance. He repeated the verb more emphatically as his hearings drew to a close: ‘We have been slow-walked and deferred and had objections every step of the way.’’”

Safire adds a quote from Southerner Bill Clinton: ”I had a four-year term; they still only confirmed 35 judges — slow walk and everything. It’s like pulling teeth.”

By 2012, the term was more widely used, as noted in Time Magazine:  “House Speaker John Boehner has accused President Obama of “slow-walking” fiscal cliff negotiations, employing a metaphor used by generations of politicians before him.”

Some examples of more recent usage refer to Hillary Clinton’s announcement of a 2016 presidential run, the delicate negotiations with China over trade, and the passage of gun legislation in state governments.

In 2019, the hold on aid to Ukraine that led to Donald Trump’s eventual impeachment was even referred to as “slow walked” in this Politico article, a prescient reference only about a month before the controversy came to light.

Indeed, the eventual impeachment of Trump itself was even referred to as “slow-walked” in this 2019 Washington Post article.

Saturday Night Massacre

The Saturday Night Massacre refers to October 20, 1973, the Saturday night when then-President Richard Nixon gave the order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, leading to the resignation of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.

Nixon ordered the firing of Cox after Cox subpoenaed the secret White House tapes Nixon kept, which held key information in the case against him. Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, who would not compromise with Nixon’s attempts to delay the process in any way. Richardson refused and instead resigned. When Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus was told to fire Cox, Ruckelshaus did the same. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox, leading to outrage.

News coverage of the Massacre was harsh, and protests quickly gathered over what was seen as an abuse of power. Polls showed this was the first time a majority of Americans wanted Nixon impeached. Nixon would resign less than a year later.

The Nation provides a good graphic on the timeline of the event.

red meat

Rhetoric on an issue used to inflame supporters. It is often associated with populist ideas.

The phrase was first seen in 1911 in the movie industry, describing movies that were sensationalized. It shifted into a political term in the 1940s. A quote from the Baltimore Sun shows one of its first uses:

“Most of the audiences… were looking for red meat in Dewey’s carefully reasoned discussions of world affairs. Since he disdained mudslinging they seized upon his withering treatment of bureaucracy and governmental incompetence as a satisfactory substitute.”

Today, red meat is almost always associated with right-wing populist speech. Things that get crowds riled up and angry — such as the “Lock Her Up” chants during the 2016 presidential election — are good examples of red meat.

purple state

A purple state features roughly even numbers of Democratic and Republican supporters in a presidential election.

It’s also a term used for a swing state on an electoral map. It is purple because it could either go blue or red. They are sometimes shown as gray on a map instead of purple.

Origins and History

The purple state concept emerged from media usage of red to represent Republicans and blue to represent Democrats in electoral maps. The 2000 presidential election was the first occasion for the common use of the red and blue colors to indicate candidate support. From 2004 to present, closely divided states have been called purple states due to the mixture of red and blue.

Purple states are often called battleground states or swing states because of their importance to presidential candidates. In national elections, a majority of states are likely to go Democratic or Republican from the outset. This baked-in status leads to a rush by national campaigns to win purple state voters every four years.

Google Trends shows that “purple state” has been more consistently searched since 2004 than “battleground state” or “swing state.” There is a regular spike in “swing state” every presidential election but both terms took a back seat to “purple state” around the 2016 election.

The roster of swing states has expanded and contracted based on developments between elections. Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History identified 11 purple states in the 2004 presidential election: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Washington Post named 10 battleground states in 2008 including Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia. FiveThirtyEight identified up to 16 potential swing states in 2016 with new additions like Arizona, Georgia, and Maine.

As the concept of purple states emerged, there was a segment of political observers who disagreed with red and blue states. Professor Robert Vanderbei of Princeton University published maps starting with the 2000 election that used red and blue shades to indicate relative partisan support. Vanderbei argued that even his maps are misleading because they apply the same shades for metro areas and small towns without indicating population.

Proponents of the Purple America idea say that most voters across the country already live in purple states. This argument suggests that the average voter lives in a state with blue urban areas and red rural areas in conflict each election. Supporters of standard electoral mapping argue that red and blue states reflect the realities of presidential elections under the Electoral College.

Examples

London School of Economics (February 18, 2020): “Nevada became a US state in 1864, during the Civil War, giving it the motto ‘Battle Born.’ It is a battleground state politically, a ‘purple’ state.”

Vox (October 9, 2019): “But even if Texas isn’t a purple state, it is a gigantic state and therefore an important one. And the switch from R+20 to R+11 matters.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts (March 6, 2008): “Despite Obama’s strength in red-state caucuses and McCain’s appeal as a moderate, this analysis keeps the number of “purple” states – those neither safely red nor blue but still up for grabs – at its original 19, at least this stage of the most wide-open presidential contest in at least a half century.”

salami tactics

“Salami tactics” refers to a divide and conquer approach, which aims to split up the opposition. The expression evokes the idea of slicing up one’s opposition in the same way as one might slice up a salami.

The phrase was coined by the Hungarian communist leader Matyos Rakosi as a way to describe his technique of dividing and isolating opposition parties during the 1940s. The phrase was also used a few decades later, in Czechoslovakia, to describe the gradual process of chipping away at the reforms that had been introduced by Alexander Dubcek before the Russian invasion in 1968.

The phrase is strongly associated with Josef Stalin, who used salami tactics to divide the anti-communist opposition groups in order to realize his goal of creating more and more communist states near Russia. Some analysts believe that Stalin’s salami tactics were simply a re-purposing of Hitler’s “piecemeal” strategy of decimating his opposition so that he and his cohorts were left as the only viable option.

During World War II, Hitler used salami tactics to slowly but surely annex other countries. The German leader eliminated his opponents piece by piece (or slice by slice), working strategically and timing his operations with the utmost care. The slow, precise approach meant that nobody ever felt alarmed enough to take decisive action in response.

Salami tactics can be compared to the idea of a “frog in hot water,” which similarly imagines an attack that comes on very slowly and by degrees. The image is of a frog immersed in water – the water’s temperature is slowly, and almost imperceptibly increased until finally the frog is boiled to death. Because the attack came on so gradually, the frog never had the opportunity to defend itself or to flee.

Salami tactics can also be compared to the old saying, “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” The Nobel-prize winning economist Thomas Schelling argued, in his book “Arms and Influence,” that salami tactics are typical childish behavior:

“Salami tactics, we can be sure, were invented by a child […] Tell a child not to go in the water and he’ll sit on the bank and submerge his bare feet; he is not yet ‘in’ the water. Acquiesce, and he’ll stand up; no more of him is in the water than before. Think it over, and he’ll start wading, not going any deeper; take a moment to decide whether this is different and he’ll go a little deeper, arguing that since he goes back and forth it all averages out. Pretty soon we are calling to him not to swim put of sight, wondering whatever happened to all our discipline.”

In modern times, pundits on the left and right have accused various governments of using “salami tactics” against the opposition. On the left, some have accused the US government of using police power, facial recognition technology, and surveillance tactics to weaken and intimidate opposition groups. Taiwanese writers have sometimes accused the Chinese government of using salami tactics against Taiwan. Western writers have also criticized what they say are “salami tactics” being carried out by Beijing in the East China Sea.

Rumseld's Rules

Rumsfeld’s rules

“Rumsfeld’s Rules” are a series of aphorisms, sayings, and observations about life in leadership, business, and politics by Donald Rumsfeld, who was a Congressman, Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense during his long, storied career.

These rules were collected over a period of time on 3×5 index cards, and were eventually compiled, typed up, and circulated throughout Washington and beyond.

The Wall Street Journal once referred to these rules as “required reading,” and they were touted in a New York Times review in 1988: “Rumsfeld’s Rules can be profitably read in any organization…The best reading, though, are his sprightly tips on inoculating oneself against that dread White House disease, the inflated ego.”

Over the years, Rumsfeld’s observations have been a staple of Washington, and in 2013 were published into a book: Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.

From the book: “These eminently nonpartisan rules have amused and enlightened presidents, business executives, chiefs of staff, foreign officials, diplomats, and members of Congress.”

While the lion’s share of Rumsfeld’s rules are apolitical, they are not without controversy, as some that criticize Rumsfeld’s leadership style have wondered why his leadership rules have caught on. As it was diplomatically put by Forbes Magazine in an article called Rumsfeld’s Rules: Seriously?: “The question that students of leadership may raise when reading Rumsfeld’s Rules is this: is it okay to listen to some who writes well but does not hold himself to the same standards? My response is yes. When it comes to leadership you can learn as much from rascals, maybe even more so, than from saints. The challenge for readers is to read what he writes through the lens of history.”

From the Washington Post: “Dick Cheney, George P. Schultz, and Henry Kissinger – all very bright men with long establishment resumes – endorse the book on the back cover. Chenery reveals that he was ‘an early practitioner of Rumsfeld’s Rules….I came to regret it on the few occasions I violated them.’”

In 2004, 9 years before the Harper Collins book was published, The Atlantic put together a short list of the rules that they call “worth revisiting,” essentially creating a “best of”:

  • “Establish good relations between the departments of Defense and State, the National Security Council, CIA and the Office of Management and Budget.”
  • “Don’t divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Avoid infatuation with or resentment of the press, the Congress, rivals, or opponents. Accept them as facts. They have their jobs and you have yours.”
  • “Don’t do or say things you would not like to see on the front page of the Washington Post.”
  • “If you foul up, tell the president and correct it fast. Delay only compounds mistakes.”
  • “Be able to resign. It will improve your value to the president and do wonders for your performance.”
  • “Your performance depends on your people. Select the best, train them, and back them. When errors occur, give sharper guidance. If errors persist or if the fit feels wrong, help them move on.”
  • “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.”

As has been noted by many, that last rule resonates in light of Rumsfeld’s involvement in orchestrating the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War.

blue state

A blue state is one whose voters elect primarily Democratic candidates. It is the opposite of a red state.

There are different levels of how ‘blue’ a state can be. If a Democratic candidate wins the vote in that state, that state has ‘turned blue.’ If a state votes for a Democrat in nearly every statewide race, it could be considered a ‘deep blue’ or ‘dark blue’ state (New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, etc.). If a state typically votes Democrat but will occasionally vote for a Republican, they are known as a ‘light blue’ state (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc.).

There is no hard and fast rule as to what makes a state dark or light blue. Some people may consider Colorado or New Mexico light blue states, and others may consider them swing states. Conversely, some people may consider Maine or Minnesota dark blue states, but others may consider them light blue due to their potential to switch in an upcoming election.

Related: The origins of red states and blue states.

robocall

An automated telephone call that delivers a prerecorded message to multiple phones. Typically, robocalls are used for mass messaging.

In politics, a robocall is typically a way of campaigning. Robocalls are sent out to potential voters, and the fact that they are simply recorded messages makes them easier to send out than in-person phone calls.

An advantage of robocalls is that the candidate can be heard by many constituents without the effort of that candidate making hundreds of calls. They can also take one message from an influential person and distribute it to many people. A disadvantage of robocalls is that they are less genuine and may be ignored by some.

The website Local Victory gives tips on what makes an effective robocall: “The real place where they shine is as a quick, cheap way to get out breaking news (like an endorsement right before Election Day) or to respond to last minute attacks from your opponent. Watch out though, some voters get turned off by too many robocalls.  Even if your campaign only does one or two rounds of calls, if your opponents have been bombarding the phone lines with calls, the voters may penalize you when they hear your call”

red state

A state whose voters elect primarily Republican candidates. It is the opposite of a blue state.

There are different levels of how ‘red’ a state can be. If a Republican candidate wins the vote in that state, that state has ‘turned red.’ If a state votes for a Republican in nearly every statewide race, it could be considered a ‘deep red’ or ‘dark red’ state (Alabama, Texas, Idaho, etc.). If a state typically votes Republican but will occasionally vote for a Democrat, they are known as a ‘light red’ state (Indiana).

There is no hard and fast rule as to what makes a state dark or light red. Some people may consider North Carolina or Iowa a light red state, and others may consider them swing states. Conversely, some people may consider Georgia and Arizona dark red states, but others may consider them light red due to their potential to switch in an upcoming election.

Related: The origins of red states and blue states.

read my lips

A phrase used by George H.W. Bush in his speech for the 1988 GOP nomination for president. The full quote is “Read my lips: no new taxes.” The line is credited with both helping him win the presidency in 1988 and losing his bid for reelection in 1992.

The phrase became the main soundbite of Bush’s campaign in 1988, and it electrified the GOP base. His assertive promise to not raise taxes became what the American people expected from him. When he was forced to raise taxes in 1990, that promise was broken, and he was attacked from both sides of the aisle.

Time ranks it as the 3rd most unfortunate one-liner ever given in politics (behind Clinton and Nixon’s famous denials).

rattle the cage

To attempt to get attention, often through annoying, angering, or protesting.

In politics, rattling the cage of a politician or party typically happens when a large group of people get together to protest and demand whatever they are asking for.

In a more personal sense, it can be used for personal interactions if one person has been caught off guard by another.

political football

To take an issue that is non-partisan and turn it into a partisan one. Political parties do this to gain an advantage over the other party, tossing an issue back-and-forth as a “football.”

The term can refer to the game of political football, where parties do this, or the issue itself. In the former case, parties are playing political football; in the latter, the issue is a political football.

The first known use of the term dates back to 1857, where it was used in a Maine newspaper.

pussyfoot

To “pussyfoot” is to proceed with caution; to move warily but steadily.; or sidestep an issue as to not take a side. It is almost always used in a pejorative sense and, as such, its synonyms include equivocating, hedging, or even weaseling.

Someone who pussyfoots around an issue does not want to express an opinion about the issue, usually because it could be controversial and could lead to a problem.

The term dates back to at least 1893; that’s when Scribner’s Magazine wrote about “men who were beginning to walk pussy-footed and shy at shadows.” The expression comes from the soft steps of a cat. President Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term around 1905, using it to refer to men he believed were excessively cautious and sneaky.

At the same time, one member of Theodore Roosevelt’s own administration may have done even more to popularize the term “pussyfoot.” William Johnson, who helped to fight against bootlegging and illegal alcohol sales in Indian Territory, was better known as Pussyfoot Johnson. He was charged with ending all liquor sales in the territories, and, predictably, the job won him enemies all over. That’s why Johnson started doing his work at night. He apparently crept around at night much like a cat, with great stealth, earning the nickname “Pussyfoot.”

Johnson was an ardent Prohibitionist, and his fellow prohibitionists came to be known as “pussyfooters” as well. The term “pussyfoot” is almost never used in that sense today.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter pledged his support for Polish workers who were in the midst of organizing. Carter’s administration vowed to help Polish labor unions, but they also worried about upsetting the balance of power between Polish workers and Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, Lane Kirkland, the head of the AFL-CIO, vowed to move forward with a fund to help labor unions in Poland. Kirkland said, “the free trade union movement cannot advance on little cat feet. I will not accept the suggestion that we pussy foot about it at all.”

Decades later, in 2016, Sarah Palin used the term “pussyfooting” when she endorsed Donald Trump for president. Palin, the one-time vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, said that with Trump there would be “no more pussyfooting around!” Merriam Webster reported that after Palin’s speech there was a sudden spike in searches for the word in their dictionary.

Palin was implying that President Obama had been “pussyfooting around,” and she wasn’t the only person to use that term. Certain pundits later praised President Trump for taking action in Iraq instead of “pussyfooting around,” as they believed Obama had done in Libya following the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi.

At the same time, President Trump’s opponents accused him of pussyfooting around issues that were inconvenient to him. Senator Amy Klobuchar, for one, claimed that Trump had been avoiding dealing with questions about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. “I think it would have been much more powerful to have that sanctions bill in his hand, and have that signed that into law and not pussyfoot around the fact that it was Russia that tried to interfere in our elections, as the president did in his answers to the questions,” Klobuchar told Meet the Press.

quagmire

quagmire

In politics, a quagmire refers to a dangerous and usually complex situation which is difficult to get out of. In literal terms, a quagmire is a soft, marshy area of land that gives way underfoot. Making your way through a quagmire is comparable to walking across quicksand.

In the United States, historians often talk about the Vietnam war as a “quagmire.” Quagmire theory holds that the US government got involved in Vietnam little by little, one step at a time. Eventually, the country was mired in the conflict and couldn’t get out.

The so-called “quagmire theory” was developed by the historian Arthur Schlessinger in his book The Bitter Heritage. Schlessinger argued that American presence in Vietnam was the result of “the triumph of the politics of inadvertence” and that the war itself was a “tragedy without villains.”

The concept was further explored in David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era.

In more recent times, analysts have borrowed the term “quagmire” to talk about American involvement in other conflicts, notably in Iraq. In March 2003, President George Bush announced the start of military action in Iraq. The war was widely criticized. Pundits, politicians, and protesters alike began referring to Iraq as a “quagmire.” Some went even further, arguing that the Iraq conflict was deeper and more inescapable than any quagmire:

“The further the U.S. and the world move from the fall of Baghdad on April 9th, the more it seems that the administration is correct: Iraq is not a quagmire. It is really a black hole,” said Daniel Smith, a retired colonel, a few months after the invasion. The Institute for Policy Research agreed, writing,

“the administration has plunged the U.S. over the lip–what is called the “event horizon”–of the human and financial black hole that is post-war Iraq. The significance of passing the astronomical event horizon is that whatever crosses it, even light, cannot recover or be recovered. It is a one-way trip down a “tunnel” at whose end there is no light, only crushing gravity.”

Still, the term quagmire stuck. It’s been used to describe the US presence in Afghanistan, as well as the ongoing involvement in Iraq. President Obama, who won his first term on a promise to get US troops out of Iraq, found that he was mired in the conflict. His critics claimed that Obama was carrying out the very type of small-bore, blinkered policies in Iraq which would lead the US deeper into a quagmire. Republican senator John McCain, who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, denounced Obama’s Iraq policy of “half measures,” saying, “this is incrementalism at its best — or worst.”

The term “quagmire” has even been used by writers trying to dissuade the US government from sending its military into Iran. In 2019, Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote that US involvement in Iran, no matter how carefully planned, would be the “mother of all quagmires: a conflict that would make the Iraq War — which I now deeply regret supporting — seem like a “cakewalk” by comparison.”

Potomac fever

The condition where a politician is gripped by a desire to stay in government, whether to make a change or for power’s sake.

The term describes a politician who never intended to stay in Washington, D.C. (which is adjacent to the Potomac River) but eventually “gets infected” and decides to stay for a long time.

puppet state

A country that claims to be independent, but is controlled by an outside state or other power. Puppet states are not recognized by international law.

A puppet state has the appearance of being independent. It typically has things like its own flag, constitution, system of government, etc., but still cedes control to another power.

Examples of puppet states include countries that were under the Soviet bloc, like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Mongolia. Some puppet governments are implemented through military force, like Vichy France in WWII. Many colonized countries in Africa and Asia would become puppet states controlled by their colonizers. Examples of this are pre-1960s Vietnam, India, and the Congo.

pol

A shorthand word for politician. Occasionally, it is used to describe anyone active in politics, including experts and political junkies.

plumbers

A task force who worked for Richard Nixon to stop classified information from getting out and gather information on political enemies. They were known as plumbers because of their attempts to plug leaks out of the White House.

The plumbers were involved in many covert and illegal activities, from stealing information to discredit the leaker of the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate burglary. The agents worked to protect the Committee for the Re-Election of the President as well.

Time ranks the activities of Nixon’s plumbers as one of the top 10 abuses of power of all time. Although Nixon denied knowledge of the plumbers activities, tapes subpoenaed during the Watergate investigation revealed years of political espionage and illegal surveillance.

play in Peoria

A phrase meaning how well something will appeal to the heartland or mainstream America. In politics, it is a gauge of how the average American will react to a policy or proposal.

Peoria is an actual city in Illinois. The phrase originated in the late 19th century, when vaudeville performers would say that if a show could be successful in Peoria, it could be successful anywhere (because Peoria was seen as an unremarkable city).

Richard Nixon popularized the phrase in political circles. He would ask how something would play in Peoria to ask how the average voter would respond to whatever he was planning.

old bull

An “old bull” is a powerful and influential Member of Congress.

Old bulls are typically senior members who have worked their way into positions of power through decades in Congress.

appeasement

Diplomatic policy in which nations attempt to make peace by making concessions to an aggressive nation. Appeasement is often linked with the policies of Neville Chamberlain during World War II.

The most famous case of appeasement is the Munich Pact, in which Britain and France, under the leadership of British Prime Minister Chamberlain, conceded Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. The hope was that it would stop the aggression of Hitler and the Nazis, but it did not, and was largely seen as giving Germany a free pass.

Due to those failures, the policy today has a very negative connotation. Defense hawks regularly accuse opponents of appeasing the enemy.

Der Spiegel outlines how the strategy failed in the 1930s.

peace at any price

A term outlining the philosophy of appeasement, in which supporters argue that peace is worth the cost asked by an enemy. It was once used as a positive term, but became an attack on appeasement after World War II.

Peace at any price is often linked with former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who is famous for attempting to appease Nazi Germany before WWII. He signed the Munich Pact, which gave Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. The failure of Chamberlain’s attempt for peace, combined with the cost of an entire nation in that attempt, turned “peace at any price” into an attack on appeasement.

It is also sometimes referred to as “peace at any cost.”

realpolitik

realpolitik

Realpolitik is a system of politics based on concrete, practical goals, rather than on morality or abstract ideals. According to Merriam Webster, the term was first used in 1895. It derives from German, in which “real” means “actual” and Politik means “politics.”

The Financial Times notes that in realpolitik, “politics is about power, about maneuvering coalitions, about social forces  and their capacity to influence politics, and about the power of ideas in shaping political possibilities.”

Realpolitik is often used interchangeably with “power politics.” It’s generally used in discussions about foreign policy and relationships between nations. The term is closely associated with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who served under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, supported a number of policies on the grounds that they were practical, if not ethical. Kissinger called for intensive bombing campaigns in North Vietnam; he also allied the US with dictatorial leaders like Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet and the Shah of Iran.

Kissinger himself argued that there must be a balance between realism and idealism. The statesman once said, ruefully, that the United States was “the only country in which “realist” can be used as a pejorative epithet.” He reasoned that without a realist strategy, even the most shining values could never be brought about.

Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman who oversaw the unification of Germany in 1871, was also famous for his use of realpolitik. Bismarck was a master diplomat who was not afraid to antagonize other countries and even start wars if he thought it would help him to accomplish his long-term goals.

More recently, many analysts have argued that President Barack Obama was a realpolitik practitioner. Obama, the argument goes, was responsible for countless deaths by drone strike. He carried out widespread wiretaps of Americans. He also failed to take action in Syria against the regime of Bashar Assad. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson claimed that many liberals had applied a “double standard” when judging Obama. The same people who were critical of Kissinger, Ferguson said, turned a blind eye to Obama’s human rights abuses. He added,

“There is disenchantment with Obama’s foreign policy these days. In recent polls, nearly half of Americans (49.3%) disapprove of it, compared with fewer than 38% who approve. I suspect, however, that many disapprove for the wrong reasons. The president is widely seen, especially on the right, as weak. In my view, his strategy is flawed, but there is no doubting his ruthlessness when it comes to executing it.”

Pundits have also labeled President Donald Trump a realist. Writing in Politico, Jacob Heilbrunn pointed out that Trump had shown a distaste for global governance and interventionism. As a presidential candidate, Trump pledged to rein in free trade and to put an end to humanitarian intervention in other nations.

In fact, candidate Trump’s first major foreign policy address promised to pursue an “America first” policy. He lamented that the US had been “rebuilding other countries” while neglecting its own needs. In sum, Trump pledged that he would “develop a new foreign policy direction for our country, one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.”

peace through strength

peace through strength

The accumulation of military power and security assets by a country to encourage an amenable diplomatic atmosphere with other countries.

Origins and History

The phrase peace through strength is attributed to the policies of Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138. Hadrian strengthened the empire’s frontier security with walls in modern-day England, Switzerland, and Germany. The emperor also encouraged the use of non-residents as defense forces to bolster existing troops. Elizabeth Speller’s Following Hadrian included the passage, “His agenda was clear: peace through strength, or failing that, peace through threat.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that peace through strength was non-existent in American texts until 1937. Bernard Baruch’s 1952 book Peace through Strength and Cold War tensions brought the term phrase into the fore. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used peace through strength in a September 1964 speech, saying that he promised “an administration that will keep the peace and keep faith with freedom at the same time.”

In American politics, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan cemented the phrase during his 1980 campaign. He argued that President Jimmy Carter’s administration failed to maintain the “margin of safety” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Reagan advocated for negotiation with the declining Soviet Union as well as a significant military buildup to thwart the global spread of communism.

After his election, the Reagan administration demonstrated peace through strength by promoting increased funding for strategic nuclear weapons, new weapon systems, and quick-strike forces. Reagan’s advisors also advocated for the capability to defeat Soviet military assets moving anywhere in the world. The president met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for direct talks on five occasions between 1985 and 1988.

Reagan’s use of peace through strength is often attributed as a cause for the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The Republican Party platform included this phrase in every election from 1980 to 2016. The 2016 platform mentioned this concept by stating, “As Americans and as Republicans we wish for peace – so we insist on strength.” The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute issues Peace Through Strength Awards each year to public officials who have supported American security and freedom.

Examples

The Hill (December 3, 2019): “Thirty years have passed since President Reagan left office, but his vision for ‘peace through strength’ still defines the world view of Americans, who remain steadfast in their support for a strong military that both keeps the peace and advances the values of freedom and democracy abroad.”

Foreign Policy (October 15, 2013): “Peace through strength is not a lonely position. In fact, there are numerous voices in the United States and in Israel calling for more political and diplomatic pressure and engagement.”

The Washington Post (August 19, 1980): “Ronald Reagan accepted the endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars today with a pledge to pursue a policy of ‘peace through strength’ that he said would restore ‘a defense capability that provides a margin of safety for America.’”

party line

The ideology or the agenda of a political party. The party line consists of most core tenets of a party, as well as anything they are attempting to accomplish.

The phrase is most often used in terms of a party-line vote. A party-line vote is when most or all politicians vote with their party on a proposal. For example, if there are 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats in the Senate, a party line vote would be 51-49 Republican.

Forbes: “Party-line voting has become the new normal. As recently as the early 1970s, party unity voting was around 60% but today it is closer to 90% in both the House and Senate.”

party faithful

Those who have been loyal supporters of a party for a long time and make up the party’s base.

Vox points out that the appeasing party faithful can be difficult, as they are sometimes opposed to bipartisanship: “Immigration in particular puts a key slice of the party faithful in conflict with the national agenda — nationally, support for immigration reform tends to be high and bipartisan.”

patronage

Patronage is the power of a political official to fill government positions with people of their choosing. In many cases this leads to nepotism and favoritism.

In the U.S., there have been many fights against patronage since the mid-1800s. After the assassination of James Garfield by a man who was overlooked for a patronage-given position, many laws were formed to force officials to be qualified to do their job. Major patronage systems in the U.S. lasted until about the 1970s, when Chicago ended theirs.

Although often associated with corruption, patronage is not always seen as a negative. Many government positions are allocated through the patronage system, including many appointed by the President.

open convention

A party convention in which delegates are able to vote for the candidate of their choice, and are not tied to the results of primaries or caucuses.

Open conventions were the norm until about 1968. The Democratic Party’s delegates were never tied to primary votes before then, and could choose who they wanted (the Republican Party was tied to primaries much earlier). This led to many cases where candidates would forego primaries and focus on delegates instead.

According to Reuters, “the 1968 election, when Hubert Humphrey, who eschewed the primaries in favor of courting officials who controlled the delegates, lost to Republican nominee Richard Nixon, led to reforms that essentially gave control of the nominating process to the popular vote. A number of states decided the easiest way to comply with the new rules would be to hold primaries.”

Today, open conventions only happen when no candidate takes a majority of the delegates. The last open convention was in 1976, when neither Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford was able to secure a majority of GOP delegates. The delegates were then free to choose a candidate without being tied to a vote.

movers and shakers

Those who have power and influence in business, politics, or other segments of the public sphere. Party leadership, committee leaders, or people with influence among certain demographics can all be considered movers and shakers.

The term was coined by 19th century poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy.

muckety muck

A person with the highest status or most power in an organization. From a political standpoint, this usually refers to someone in the party leadership or with another influential position.

The term is interchangeable with mucky-muck or muckamuck.

mollycoddle

In a political context, the term “mollycoddle” means to treat certain constituents or voters in an almost absurdly overprotective way. Typically used in the context of the “welfare state” and those who feel entitled to government assistance, those who have been labeled “mollycoddled” by politicians are usually the most vulnerable, and those seen as unable or unwilling to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

In its broadest sense, those who are “mollycoddled” are differentiated from so-called “people of action” or “go getters,” as they are seemingly too dependent on the government – or others – for help.

One of the most famous uses of the word dates back to a 1907 address by Teddy Roosevelt to Harvard students, when the 26th president famously warned them about becoming “too fastidious, too sensitive to take part in the rough hurly-burly of the actual work of the world.” He went on to decry colleges that “turn out mollycoddles instead of vigorous men,” and reinforced his point: “the weakling and the coward are out of place in a strong and free community.”

Clearly a favorite word of the 26th president, the Washington Post even describes Roosevelt as once referring to the sport of baseball as a “mollycoddle game,” not tough or violent enough for his liking.

The origins of the word “mollycoddle” can be traced back to early 19th century Britain, when it was used as a derogatory term for an overly effeminate man. In more modern times, the term has lost its homophobic overtones and is used more generally to deride the overprotected or overprivileged.

In recent years, the term “mollycoddled” has become synonymous with another political term, “snowflake,” which is also used to describe someone who’s too sensitive, too politically correct, and cloyingly disaffected.

In this 2014 article from Politico, the writer casts the entire population of America’s college kids as “mollycoddled babies,” citing their reliance on “trigger warnings” for any subject that might offend or traumatize their sensibilities.

Further, the term is sometimes used to deride a more pacifist worldview, as noted here in an article about former VP Dick Cheney. The article compares Cheney’s attitude about Obama’s Middle East policies to Teddy Roosevelt’s view of Woodrow Wilson when it came to our participation in world conflict. Roosevelt, about Wilson: “Professor Wilson, that Byzantine logothete, supported by all the flubdubs, mollycoddles, and flapdoodle pacifists.”

Indeed, modern day Republicans are the political party most likely to accuse voters of being “mollycoddled,” and it can be argued that the rise of Donald Trump is in some ways the direct result of this.

New Frontier

“New Frontier” is used to describe the domestic and foreign policies of the Kennedy Administration.

The term was first used in John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech for the Democratic party’s nomination for president. He referred to “the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”

After Kennedy’s election, the term became synonymous with the collection of policies he put forward, similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or LBJ’s Great Society. Everything from the Bay of Pigs Invasion to his tax cuts became part of the New Frontier.

off the record

A term used in journalism meaning that the information given to the reporter cannot be attributed to the person saying it. Off the record quotes are often used to protect sources who are giving information that could get them in trouble.

The term off the record has picked up many misconceptions. To be off the record, the journalist must agree to it. A person cannot declare himself off the record after statements are made and hope his statements will not be reported. If the source does not want the quote to be reported, with attribution or without, they must agree to it with the reporter beforehand.

Off the record quotes are used often in politics, typically to protect anonymous sources speaking out, and protecting them from being fired or silenced by politicians.

The Guardian: “Let’s face it, down the years we have been here many, many times. People say things to journalists, possibly in a light-hearted fashion, that end up in print. Inevitably, “official” denial follows. They may also fail to grasp what we mean by ‘off the record.’ For journalists, it simply means that it is reportable as long as the source is not identified.”

NIMBY

An acronym for ‘not in my backyard.’ It represents opposition to a proposal for development because it would be built close to them, and affect them in some way.

NIMBY is often used for local development projects like airports, pipelines, or local fracking. People who use the phrase may be supportive of the development, but do not want it near them due to the negative effects it could bring to their hometown.

Forbes: “From housing construction caps in San Francisco and the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska to bridge and subway construction in New York City and port expansion in Savannah, Ga., NIMBY has delayed, killed or inflated the expenses of more than 500 projects nationwide over the last decade at a cost to the economy of more than $1 trillion annually.”

morning in america

Morning in America

“Morning in America” is a phrase from a 1984 TV ad for President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign to evoke a renewed American economic and social landscape.

Origins and History

The Reagan campaign sought to build on perceptions of economic progress during the 1984 presidential campaign. In 1980, Reagan won the presidency by highlighting high unemployment, inflation, and international unrest in four years of President Jimmy Carter. His re-election campaign used TV ads to show progress under Reagan and contrast perceived lack of preparedness by the campaign of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale.

Hal Riney of Ogilvy & Mater was tasked in June 1984 with writing positive ads for the Reagan/Bush ticket. Riney wrote the ad that would be referred to as “Morning in America” but was properly titled “Prouder, Stronger, Better.” The 60-second ad shows imagery from an average American community starting their day culminating in a wedding. Riney’s narration included the following text:

It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly two thousand families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

Riney followed “Morning in America” with the similarly toned “America’s Back.” A 30-second ad titled “Bear” struck a different tone, comparing a wild grizzly bear to international foes and imploring voters to opt for the more prepared candidate.

These ads helped cast Reagan in a positive light following the 1982 recession and midterm Democratic gains in the House. The Harris Survey gave Reagan a five-point lead over Mondale in June 1983, though 48% of respondents say Reagan shouldn’t run again in 1984.

Campaign ads like “Morning in America” countered these numbers, making voters remember the Reagan who won 489 electoral votes in 1980. On November 6, 1984, Reagan nearly swept the Electoral College by winning every state except Minnesota. Reagan also received 58.8% of the popular vote, which has not been equaled by any presidential campaign in subsequent elections.

Examples

Business Insider (July 28, 2016): “‘He wants to divide us – from the rest of the world and from each other,’ Clinton said. “He’s betting that the perils of today’s world will blind us to its unlimited promise. He’s taken the Republican Party a long way, from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America.’”

The New York Times (May 8, 2016): “What’s missing from ‘Morning in America’ is Mr. Reagan. His face appears in the commercial for only two or three seconds, at the end – a still color photo on a campaign button, next to an American flag.”

misunderestimate

“Misunderestimate” is a malapropism invented by President George W. Bush that has come to mean “to underestimate by mistake.”

Bush accidentally used the term in a 2000 interview, saying, “They misunderestimated me.” He likely meant to say “underestimated” but the term became linked with Bush, often as evidence for his lack of intelligence.

missile gap

A Cold War-era phrase that was used to describe the difference in number and power of missiles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

The term was first used by Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1958 to accuse then-President Eisenhower of being weak on defense. The idea of a missile gap was debunked, but the perception of one persisted. The missile gap actually favored the U.S., but false claims of Soviet superiority led to a surge in military expansion.

silent majority

The term “silent majority” refers to a large block of voters that feel marginalized, silenced or underserved by the political system. It’s commonly assumed that, if they voted en masse, this “silent majority” would have an enormous ability to affect the outcome of any given election.

Used more broadly these days, the term “silent majority” once referred to all those who had passed on in human history. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in 1902: “…great captains on both sides of our Civil War have long ago passed over to the silent majority, leaving the memory of their splendid courage.”

It was first used politically by Warren Harding in his campaign for president in 1919, but the term gained real traction in the 1960s, when it was used by Richard Nixon as a way of galvanizing voters that may otherwise have not voted due to their dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War and politics in general.

If a speech delivered to the nation in November 1969, Nixon evoked the term to appeal to a swath of voters that he felt supported him even if that wasn’t reflected in the polls or by the political intelligentsia. As described on its 50th anniversary, in 2019: “Fifty years ago Sunday night, President Richard M. Nixon sat in the Oval Office and delivered a nationally televised speech whose content is almost universally forgotten today, but, like so many major presidential addresses, is remembered for one phrase: ‘silent majority.’ As in: ‘And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of Americans — I ask for your support.’”

At the time, the silent majority was mostly associated with the white working class in America, and turned out to be a critical part of Nixon’s reelection, as described by Vox: “In 1972, Nixon’s silent majority, grounded firmly in the white working class, delivered a smashing victory for the GOP, dashing the hopes of George McGovern supporters that a new coalition of young white professionals and racial minorities could upend American politics.”

Used in the 50 years since Nixon to describe a bloc of voters whose attitudes are not perceived as popular or trendy, more recently it has referred to those who take umbrage with the rise of political correctness and the perceived elitism of the liberal left and political punditry.

From NPR: “Others said the silent majority is defined by fiscal conservatism, or disapproval of things like Planned Parenthood, or anger with government gridlock. Dan Fix of Mason City, Iowa, said the quintessential member of the silent majority would be Joe the Plumber, or in Iowa’s case, he pointed out, Joe the Farmer.”

These days, when debating who – or what – the “silent majority” is, racial overtones are hard to ignore. Historian Rick Perlstein: “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.”

Whatever bloc of voters it refers to, the term “silent majority” is still used by politicians as a way to appeal to voters who feel like they belong to a group of people who are forgotten, and are forever searching for a candidate that they feel speaks for their values.

shy voter

A shy voter is one who does not admit to supporting a certain candidate to pollsters, but still votes for that candidate in the election.

The term comes from the “Shy Tory Effect,” a phenomenon that found British conservatives greatly outperforming their poll numbers.

Shy voters seem to not make up a large percentage of the voting population, and have not been found to affect an election. However, the idea of the “shy Trump voter” was talked about in the 2016 election as a means to explain how Trump outperformed polls.

Harry Enten: “The ‘shy Trump’ theory relies on the notion of social desirability bias— the idea that people are reluctant to reveal unpopular opinions. So if the theory is right, we would have expected to see Trump outperform his polls the most in places where he is least popular — and where the stigma against admitting support for Trump would presumably be greatest… But actual election results indicate that the opposite happened: Trump outperformed his polls by the greatest margin in red states, where he was quite popular.”

limousine liberal

A pejorative for wealthy liberals who do not want to bear the cost of the liberal policies they support. It is typically used by populists to criticize the rich members of the Democratic Party.

Examples of a limousine liberal include Democrats who champion distribution of wealth but pay their workers minimum wage, or those who claim to support environmental regulation but have a large carbon footprint.

According to Time, the term comes from the 1969 NYC Mayoral race, where it was first used by candidate Mario Procaccino to attack his wealthy opponent:

[Limousine liberals] were, according to Procaccino, who was then the city’s comptroller, insulated from any real contact with poverty, crime, and the everyday struggle to get by, living in their exclusive neighborhoods, sending their children to private prep schools, sheltering their capital gains and dividends from the tax man, and getting around town in limousines, not subway cars. Not about to change the way they lived, they wanted everybody else to change, to have their kids bused to school far from home, to shoulder the tax burden of an expanding welfare system, to watch the racial and social makeup of their neighborhoods turned upside down.

lid

A term used by White House press secretaries to indicate that there will be no news coming out of the White House that day. It can also be called a ‘Full Lid.’

A lid is typically called when the White House does not want to release any information about a key topic. They call a lid to give notice to journalists that no questions will be answered.

Although the term has been around for decades, it was popularized by fictional Press Secretary C.J. Cregg on TV show The West Wing.

Kelly O’Donnell: “The White House has again called a ‘lid’ meaning no other news is expected tonight.”

cuckservative

A pejorative used by alt-Right conservatives to insult moderate Republicans. It implies they have sold out and is similar to the term RINO. The term is a combination of ‘Conservative’ and ‘cuckold’ (one whose wife is cheating on him). It implies that those moderates are weak and effeminate.

The term originates from the white-supremacist blogospher which started using it in 2015. The term gained favor during the 2016 Republican presidential debates and has continued through the presidency of Donald Trump.

youthquake

Social, cultural, or political change brought about by young people. In politics, it is typically used to mean a surge of young voters in a key election.

The term originated in the fashion industry in 1965, when it was used by Vogue magazine. It has taken on a more politically charged meaning in recent years, and was voted the ‘Word of the Year’ for 2017 by Oxford.

The Guardian: ‘Youthquake’ Behind Labour Election Surge Divides Generations

cromnibus

Legislation which combines a long-term omnibus spending bill with a shorter-term continuing resolution.

Marketplace: “It’s that time of year again. No, not the holidays, but Congress’ annual maneuvering to pass a budget. It has to figure out a way to keep the government running beyond Dec. 11, when current funding runs out. A lot of terms have been used to describe this annual ritual. Remember fiscal cliff? Now there’s a new one: Cromnibus. It’s part omnibus – that is, a long-term funding bill – and part continuing resolution, or CR – for short-term funding. CR plus omnibus equals cromnibus.”

poison the well

A rhetorical device often used by politicians where adverse information is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing what another politician intends to say.

The origin of the term lies in well poisoning, an old wartime practice of pouring poison into sources of fresh water before an invading army, to diminish the attacking army’s strength.

wave election

When one political party makes major gains in the United States House and Senate and the other has few losses.

Mark Barabak: “There is no authoritative definition of a wave election. (Which is not to be confused with a realigning election, like those in 1932 and 1968, in which a party forges a new and enduring presidential coalition.) A wave election is commonly considered one in which a political party wins a large and lopsided number of House and Senate seats while sustaining minimal losses.”

“In the past 20 years, there have been several wave elections of that type, including 1994 when Republicans netted 54 House and 10 Senate seats; 2006 when Democrats won 31 House and six Senate seats; 2008 when Democrats gained 21 House and eight Senate seats, and—most spectacularly—the last midterm vote, in 2010, when the GOP won 63 House seats and four in the Senate.”

Jacob Smith: “Unfortunately — and surprisingly given the widespread use of this term — there is not a precise definition of this concept. To try to correct this, I have developed my own definition that combines both scholarly rigor with the basic intuition of a wave election being a ‘big win’ for one side at the expense of the other.”

“Specifically, I define a ‘wave election’ to be a congressional election that (1) produces the potential for a political party to significantly affect the political status quo as (2) the result of a substantial increase in seats for that party.”

Charlie Cook says wave elections are usually the result of a “overarching, nationwide dynamic.”

grifter

A grifter is a con artist, someone who obtains money by swindling or tricking others. In politics, the word refers to people who use the political process as a way to enrich themselves.

Merriam Webster notes that the word first appeared in print in 1915, in George Bronson-Howard’s novel, God’s Man.  At that time, a grifter referred to any kind of criminal who used his wits, rather than brute force, to carry out crimes. Pickpockets, con artists, and card-sharps could all be classed as grifters.

In recent years, pundits have begun talking about political grifters. In 2014 former Rep. Steve LaTourette, of Ohio, wrote a piece in Politico describing what he called the rise of the political grifter. LaTourette was describing people who get into politics, and stay in politics, because they want to line their own pockets. He singled out the Republican party for censure, warning that the party was being divided into two wings – the governing wing, and the grifting ring.

LaTourette claimed that right-wing groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots were “run by men and women who have made millions by playing on the fears and anger about the dysfunction in Washington.” In LaTourette’s view, modern-day grifters don’t care about ideals, or even about political power. They have no interest in governing or passing laws. They’re only in it for the money that they can collect in the form of political donations.

A 2014 investigation by Politico looked at 33 political action committees, or PACs, that courted donations from Tea Party voters. Politico discovered that the groups “raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors.” But almost none of the money raised can be accounted for, Politico found: “The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs.”

In late 2018, the New York Times noted that both President Trump and his administration were “constantly” being accused of grifting. Earlier that year, Forbes said that Wilbur Ross, the US secretary of commerce, “could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.” One-time EPA head Scott Pruitt was repeatedly accused of being a grifter because of his close ties to the oil and gas industries. Michael Cohen, the president’s one-time personal lawyer, was widely seen as a grifter himself; later, Cohen testified against Trump and described his former boss as a “conman” and a “cheat.”

Of course, Democrats have also been accused of grifting. Bill and Hillary Clinton have both been accused of grifting, in part because of allegations that they did favors for wealthy donors to the Clinton Foundation. The New York Post ran an op-ed calling Hillary Clinton a “world class grifter who sold access to the Lincoln Bedroom and to her State Department office. The Wall Street Journal has also repeatedly accused both Bill and Hillary Clinton of “grifting.”

Fancy Farm

An annual picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky that has come to represent the traditional starting point of the fall campaign season in Kentucky. The gathering attracts statewide and occasionally national candidates and is held on the first Saturday in August.

The picnic was mainly a local affair until A. B. “Happy” Chandler began making appearances, going for the first time in 1931 while running for Lieutenant Governor. So many Kentucky politicians now attend that it tends to only be news when a major politician decides not to make an appearance.

Said Chandler in an interview: “I guess I was one of the first candidates for statewide office to ever go to Fancy Farm. I ended my 1931 campaign for lieutenant governor down there. I won that election and thought Fancy Farm was good luck, so I kept going back.”

Sam Youngman: “Politically speaking, there are two main attractions at Fancy Farm: The specter of a career-ending gaffe hanging over every politician who takes the stage, and the crowd, half of which is trying to will that gaffe to happen through endless heckling and occasional chants.”

The Louisville Courier Journal has a good video explainer of the event.

Chicago-style politics

Used to characterize a supposedly offensive tough, “take-no-prisoners” approach to politics.

Jacob Weisberg: “Chicago-style politics, in common parlance, refers to the 1950s-1970s era of the Richard J. Daley machine… The strength and durability of the Daley machine was its ethnically based patronage network, a complex system of obligations, benefits, and loyalties that didn’t depend on televised communication with a broader public. It was a noncompetitive system that in its heyday had a lock on urban power and the spoils that went with it.”

Don Rose: “Time was the term ‘Chicago politics’ or ‘Chicago-style politics’ had a special meaning based on our history from the Al Capone years through the regime (1955-76) of one Richard J. Daley, aka Da Mare. Nowadays, like our unique political lexicon, it seems to have become a generic insult for just about any politics one disagrees with.”

ego wall

An “ego wall” is where people flaunt their political connections by displaying photos of themselves with more famous people.

The phenomenon is also sometimes called the “glory wall” or “me wall.”

Mike Nichols: “The ego wall is where the politician hangs pictures of himself or herself beside other, more famous politicians. It is why, when a president flies into town, there are usually about 495 lesser politicians waiting on the tarmac. They want a picture for the ego wall.”

Slate: “Lobbyists have glory walls in the office to impress clients. Staffers have them to impress other staffers. Socialites have their glory walls on the piano… For aspiring Washingtonians, the glory wall allows you to brag about conversations you never really had with the chief justice and intimacies you never really shared with the president.”

Borking

To attack a person’s reputation and views.

“Borking” was popularized by the Wall Street Journal editorial page after the Senate rejected the nomination of Robert Bork the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

Bork himself later discussed the origination of the term in a 2005 interview with Frank Sesno on CNN:

BORK: Well, I knew what was happening. The core of the issue was, they were afraid I would vote to overrule Roe against Wade. And they were quite right.

SESNO: And your name became a verb.

BORK: My name became a verb. And I regard that as one form of immortality.

SESNO: To Bork means what?

BORK: I think to attack with — to attack a person’s reputation and views unfairly.

nut-cutting time

A time when drastic actions are required, because all other methods have failed. The phrase is used in sports as well as in politics.

Nut-cutting time is similar to “crunch time” – it’s a moment when the stakes are high and it’s appropriate to pull out all the stops. It’s also a time when it makes sense to experiment with new approaches.

William Safire is widely credited with being the first writer to use the phrase in print. Safire’s political dictionary defines nut-cutting time as “a slang allusion to political castration: the denial of favors and the removal of power; or, painful attention to details requiring attention.”

Richard Nixon famously used the phrase in 1968 during his presidential campaign. On the eve of the election, he told his campaign staff that it was time to “get down to the nut-cutting.” William Safire wrote that Nixon had meant to say “let’s get down to brass tacks” and that his use of the phrase “nut cutting” was a slip of the tongue. That’s been interpreted to mean that Nixon was expressing a deep-seated anxiety about castration, especially since Nixon went on to talk about lamb fries, a regional delicacy which he’d been given during a campaign stop in Missouri.

There’s some disagreement over where, exactly, the phrase “nut cutting time” originated. Some people believe that the phrase can be traced back to cattle ranches. The explanation is that there were certain days when the ranchers had to decide which of the cattle would be castrated, and which would be allowed to grow up to be bulls. The castration would be performed during nut cutting time. The expression, in this context, implies a painful but still necessary duty.

An alternate explanation says that the phrase comes from an industrial context. According to that theory, someone who has tried everything possible to remove a rusted or a stripped nut might be forced to physically cut the nut off the bolt as a final, last-ditch solution. The phrase, in this context, suggests an imperfect solution to a problem which is only appropriate when everything else has been attempted.

“Nut cutting time” is also used in sports, to mean “crunch time,” or the time when the best players have to pull out all the stops and show what they’re made of. In an interview with the Washington Post, former NFL hall of famer and coach Russ Grimm explained what he values and needs during nut cutting time:

“I mean it changes every year. The league changes,” Grimm said. “But the bottom line is, bigger is always better. And I’m gonna live and die with that. The toughness factor, when it comes to nut-cutting time, you want tough guys playing for you. You can take some of these Cadillacs or whatever, he runs a 4.3, but he runs a 4.3 every fifth time he runs a route, you know what I’m saying?

backbencher

backbencher

A “backbencher” is a junior member in the British House of Commons who occupies the back benches of Parliament, sitting behind party leaders and top government officials.

This term is most commonly used to describe legislators in parliamentary systems from England to New Zealand. There is some dispute about the first use of backbencher, though it generally attributed to English parliamentarians in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Merriam-Webster places the term’s first use in 1799, while the Oxford English Dictionary places the evolution of backbench into backbencher in 1910. The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) places its origins in Canadian politics in 1897.

Backbencher is used not only to confer spatial locations in parliamentary locations but places in party hierarchies. The backbenches of Parliament are held by rank-and-file members who are low in the political pecking order. First-term legislators, independents, and party rebels are often found in the ranks of backbenchers. These figures are relegated to the back rows while party leaders and ministers occupy the front benches.

The DCHP places the first uses of backbenchers in American politics to the 1920s. Google’s Ngram Viewer confirms this chronology with a steady ascent in usage from 1936 to 1970. This trend may have occurred due to the closeness of relations between England and the United States.

U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) was a frequent user of the term during his tenure in Congress. His backbench days in the House including an effort to investigate the finances of Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D). In 1988, he told The New York Times, “If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything. But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.”

Backbencher doesn’t work as well in American politics due to differences in legislative seating rules. The House of Representatives held a desk lottery each session from 1845 to 1913. This lottery was necessary because floor desks acted as legislator offices before the construction of dedicated office space. The House lottery system shifted from desks to offices and the floor desks were replaced by benches open to any member. The Senate’s standing rules require the assignment of seats after allocation following the most recent election.

Examples

The Australian Financial Review (February 25, 2020): “The bitter debate over climate change has led backbenchers from the right and left of the Coalition to express interest in exploring nuclear power.”

The Guardian (January 9, 2019): “At the heart of it all is a group of Labour backbenchers – and a growing number of Conservatives – who have been campaigning for a second referendum for over a year, and who are described by one MP involved as ‘an executive in exile’.”

The Globe and Mail (February 11, 2013): “Since 1947, only 26 percent of backbenchers who sat on the government side for seven years without ever being given a greater role were subsequently promoted.”

BBC: “Backbenchers are also sometimes known as private members and thus a backbencher can introduce an original idea for legislation in the form of a Private Member’s Bill. Backbenchers have more freedom to speak as they are not as constrained by loyalty to the government. This can also pose problems for the party whips who try to impose party discipline.”

The term has also come to refer to the rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress who are not part of their party’s leadership.

bed-wetting

Someone who expresses doubt or excessive worry about a political outcome.

ABC News reports that David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager and top political adviser, first coined the term in 2008 when Democrats began openly fretting about their political challenges.

Plouffe used the term again before the 2010 midterm elections in a Washington Post op-ed when he urged “no bed-wetting” among Democrats: “This will be a tough election for our party and for many Republican incumbents as well. Instead of fearing what may happen, let’s prove that we have more than just the brains to govern — that we have the guts to govern.”

strategery

Strategery is a fictional word coined by comedy writer Jim Downey in a now famous Saturday Night Live sketch written to lampoon former president George W. Bush during the election cycle of 2000, when he was still a candidate. The sketch, which first aired on SNL on October 7, 2000, simulated a debate between candidate Bush and his rival, Al Gore, and mocked Bush as an intellectual lightweight, playing off of his propensity for misspeaking and using neologisms.

In the skit, Will Ferrell, impersonating the former president, says “strategery” when the moderator asks the candidates to “sum up, in a single word, the best argument for their candidacy.” The sketch is also noted for fellow cast member Darrell Hammond’s impression of Gore, who is depicted as stiff and pedantic, presenting the word “lockbox” as his sole policy position.

Always one to embrace satire and be self-effacing, the Bush White House later appropriated the term and eventually consultants within the 43rd president’s orbit became affectionately referred to as “The Department of Strategery,” as reported in the Washington Post in 2004.

Over the years, the word became synonymous with “Bushspeak,” or a repeated pattern of verbal gaffes (like when Bush used the term ”misunderestimated” in a press conference soon after the 2000 election). Eventually, “strategery” became a symbol of the Bush presidency itself, embraced and even celebrated by conservatives, while simultaneously used by the left as a symbol of the president’s failed policies, particularly when it came to the Iraq War.

The word has become so deeply associated with Bush and his presidency that in 2017, in an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, Bush recalled a story in which he claimed to have invented the word himself, only to be corrected by Lorne Michaels when the two met in person.

To this day, Bush maintains his sense of humor about the sketch and his depiction by Ferrell, saying “it’s important not to take yourself too seriously,” and claiming that the impressions of him presented on SNL never bothered him a bit. Bush himself used the term in a 2001 interview with CNN, presumably as a self-deprecating nod to the comedy sketch.

Indeed, in 2019, the Bush presidential library embraced the term even further when they launched a politically-themed podcast called The Strategerist.

As one of the most enduring catchphrases to emerge from SNL’s long history, “strategery’ continues to be remembered, beloved, and used in political circles. A 2017 Rolling Stone article ranked the Bush-Gore debate sketches as one of the top 20 of all-time, and a year later a petition was even launched on the website charge.org to make the word a permanent entry in Encyclopedia Britannica.

The petition failed to get the support it needed – perhaps the creators needed a better “strategery.”

fire house primary

firehouse primary

A firehouse primary is a candidate nominating contest funded and overseen by a local party organization rather than public election officials.

Origins and History

A standard primary is operated by county and state election officials who are not affiliated with any party. Firehouse primaries are used to determine local, county, and state candidates for general elections in lieu of standard primaries and party conventions. Parties use this primary method to handle nominations without convention floor votes or debates. A firehouse primary allows the sponsoring party to experiment with voting methods and ensure compliance with party rules.

The firehouse primary is sometimes referred to as a mass canvass, a party canvass, or a firehouse caucus. This primary form takes place in a variety of locations including schools, fire stations, and churches.

William Safire detailed the origins of firehouse primary in a 2008 On Language article for the New York Times. Safire found a secondhand reference to the phrase dating to a 1975 article in The Washington Post. This reference mentioned the open aspect of this primary with voters casting ballots at tables instead of booths. Safire’s firsthand research discovered firehouse primary’s print debut in a Washington Times article from 1990.

The firehouse primary is most often associated with the state of Virginia. Google Trends shows that Virginia was the lone state to show search interest in the term between 2004 and 2020. The Republican Party of Virginia includes firehouse primaries as one of several nominating options in its Handbook for Mass Meetings, Conventions and Party Canvasses. The Democratic Party of Virginia featured sample rules for a firehouse primary in its 2016 local elections handbook including the following:

  • A four-hour window for votes starting at noon
  • Certification by each voter of voter and party registration along with a promise not to vote for a candidate outside of the party
  • Using a coin flip to resolve tied votes after canvassing

Virginia may have popularized firehouse primaries but at least one state adopted this method for its 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The rules for the firehouse caucus held by the North Dakota Democratic Party included a pledge of support for the party’s candidates. This caucus represented a significant switch from the 2016 caucuses that required multiple rounds of preference votes. State parties in Alaska and Kansas also adopted the firehouse caucus format for their 2020 presidential nominating contests.

Examples

Virginia Mercury (June 6, 2019): “The local Republican committee in Hanover decided to cancel a party convention in favor of a mass canvass, or firehouse primary.”

The Harrisonburg Citizen (April 27, 2019): “The firehouse primary finished off an eight-week sprint of a campaign for the trio of Republicans since Landes announced March 5 that he wouldn’t run.”

NBC 4 Washington (January 24, 2014): “Northern Virginia Republicans opted to run a firehouse primary to choose a nominee in the 10th Congressional District, where Republican Frank Wolf is retiring after 34 years.”

McConnelling

The practice of setting music to awkward, B-roll footage of a politician.

The term was coined after Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) re-election campaign in 2014 posted a two-and-a-half minute video of the senator campaigning set simply to music. As Time points out, the footage “was most likely placed there for outside PACs supportive of McConnell to use, a practice circumventing campaign finance rules barring coordination used by both Republicans and Democrats.”

The Daily Show coined the term “McConnelling” and provided a few hilarious examples, putting the footage of McConnell to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Said host Jon Stewart: “Here’s the secret. It works with every song that has the word ‘eyes’ in it.”

barnstormer

To travel around the country or state making political appearances during a political campaign. The phrase was first used when pilots would travel around the country to entertain with their flying skills.

All-Things-Aviation: “A typical barnstormer (or a group of barnstormers) would travel across to a village, borrow a field from a farmer for the day and advertise their presence in the town by flying several low passes over it – roaring over the main street at full throttle. The appearance of the barnstormers was akin to a national holiday. Entire towns were shut down and people would flock to the fields purchasing tickets for the show and plane rides. Locals, most of them never having seen planes before, would be thrilled by the experience. In several towns parties would be organized on such occasions in the honor of the barnstormers.” Now the word has come to mean a political speech given on the road.”

Huey Long

kingfish

“Kingfish” is the nickname for Huey P. Long, the one-time governor of Louisiana. Long was a divisive figure who played a larger than life role in his state’s politics, and beyond. He continued to loom large even after he was assassinated in 1935.

Long was born on August 30, 1893 in Winnfield, Louisiana, where he family owned a successful farm. He attended Louisiana State University on a scholarship before eventually going to law school. He was admitted to the Louisiana state bar in 1914 but soon went into business, winning a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission. There, he used his power to fight monopolies and cultivated a reputation as a friend to the working class.

In 1928, Long ran for governor of Louisiana. It was his second attempt, after a run in which he placed third. Long won the governership in 1928. He ran under the slogan, “Every man a king,” which some say was the origin of his nickname, Kingfish. Others believe that Long took the nickname “Kingfish” from a character on the Amos n Andy show, a minstrel show (in Long’s time, the show was aired on the radio; it later switched to television).

Long has been described as a racist, who gave speeches denigrating African Americans and behaved callously to African Americans he encountered in his own life. As governor, one of his first moves was to segregate the state’s bus system. At the same time, Long’s defenders say that his racial politics were relatively mild for the time and place in which he lived.

As governor, Long was seen as both an authoritarian and a populist figure. He built up the power of the executive, centralized investigative power, and made it easier for police to make arrests. At the same time, Long increased spending on education and on infrastructure. He imposed higher taxes on big businesses, notably on Standard Oil.

After Long had spent less than a year in office, the Louisiana State legislature moved to impeach him. His opponents argued that he had accepted bribes, carried a weapon, and behaved inappropriately in public. The impeachment attempt ultimately failed.

In 1930, Long successfully ran for the US Senate. There, he pushed for a series of economic reforms known as the “Share Our Wealth” plan. “Share Our Wealth” clubs popped up over the country. At Long’s insistence, the clubs were racially segregated.

In 1935, Long was in Baton Rouge when a man named Carl Weiss approached him. Weiss was the son in law of one of Long’s political rivals. Weiss pulled out a gun and shot Long. Long died several days later. His last words, reportedly, were “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.”

Long continues to be a controversial figure, decades after his death. He is remembered by many for his love of power and for what some see as demagoguery. Others praise him for his financial reforms and his attacks on big business. In any event, the name, and the fame, of the Kingfish lives on.

goo goo

Short for “good government guys,” referring to people who would fight for government reform.

This was used during the 1970s as a derisive term for those who were fighting to clean up city municipalities. James Merriner writes that the phrase was “attributed to Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun in the late nineteenth century. Goo goo might have originally been applied to members of the Good Government Association of Boston, energized by Harvard reformers in suburban Cambridge.”

kangaroo ticket

A “kangaroo ticket” is a ticket for higher office in which the person at the bottom of the ticket is considered more electable or is more well-known than the person at the top.

The Chicago Tribune defines the term as: “A combination of nominees in which the running mate is more appealing than the presidential candidate (possibly coined to refer to a kangaroo’s propulsion from its hind legs, or to the weight it carries in its bottom half).”

The term dates back to Mississippi politics from the 1840s, as seen in this news clipping from the Vicksburg Whig, which describes the ticket of James K. Polk for President and Silas Wright for Vice President as a “kangaroo ticket,” since Wright was considered more electable. The editor explains his rationale for the term: “A Kangaroo Ticket, by G-d – strongest in the hind legs.”

While so-called “kangaroo tickets” are rare in national politics, there are some notable examples of the term being used throughout history, as on October 23, 1971, when the New York Times reported: “[John Connally would run for Vice President if asked by President Nixon, but] he would insist that the Nixon-Connally partnership be advertised as a ‘kangaroo ticket.’”

In a 1984 New York Post article, the author described one Texas politician’s reaction to FDR’s 1934 nomination as a “kangaroo ticket,” adding: “It’s stronger in the hindquarters than in the front.”

In 1860, during the election that eventually led to the Lincoln presidency, in the lead up to the Civil War, the little-known Constitutional Union Party put forth the ticket of John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Everett was an esteemed orator and lecturer from the North and Bell was a more reserved and lesser-known candidate from the South. This unusual combination of candidates earned them the label of “kangaroo ticket,” as reported in Douglas Egerton’s book about the election of 1860 called Year of Meteors.

Perhaps the most notable visible depiction of the concept of a “kangaroo ticket” can be seen here in this political cartoon from Judge Magazine, mocking the ticket of Grover Cleveland and Thomas Hendricks for the Democratic nomination in 1884.

The Great Mentioner

The phenomenon whereby certain people are “mentioned” to journalists as possible candidates for higher office.

Scott Simon of National Public Radio explained: “The late Art Buchwald used to talk about the Great Mentioner — some unnamed person who told pundits and reporters a lot of people say this, a lot of people say that. Art said that if you trace back exactly who said this and that, it was usually just the reporters and analysts themselves that tried to splash a coat of credibility over sheer speculation by putting it in the mouth of the Great Mentioner.”

Ryan Lizza attributes the term to New York Times columnist Russell Baker who used it “to describe the mysterious source who plucks politicians from obscurity and mentions them to political journalists as contenders for higher office.”

Akinize

Attempting to diminish a political foe by likening his or her words to remarks on “legitimate rape” made by former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) while seeking a U.S. Senate seat in 2012.

Bill Lambrecht: “Akinize has been used often to describe political attacks since those remarks about rape and pregnancy effectively scuttled Akin’s political ambition. Google finds Akinize 15,000 times.”

nuclear option

When the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate disregards a rule or precedent.

This most commonly refers to an effort by the Senate to end a filibuster by a simple majority, even though rules specify that ending a filibuster requires the consent of at least 60 senators.

An opinion written by Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957 concluded that the U.S. Constitution grants the presiding officer the authority to override Senate rules in this way. If a majority vote to uphold the presiding officer, his interpretation of the rules becomes a precedent.

Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) first called the option “nuclear” in March 2003, using the metaphor of a nuclear strike to suggest it might provoke retaliation by the minority party.

plausible deniability

Plausible deniability is the ability to deny any involvement in illegal or unethical activities, because there is no clear evidence to prove involvement. The lack of evidence makes the denial credible, or plausible. The use of the tactic implies forethought, such as intentionally setting up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for one’s future actions.

The term is used both in law and in politics. In politics, plausible deniability usually applies to the practice of keeping the leadership of a large organization uninformed about illicit actions that the organization is carrying out. The leaders then have “plausible deniability” if they are ever questioned about those illicit actions. In other words, they truly don’t know about any illegal actions, and so they are automatically clear of blame.

The term was first coined when the Church Committee, a committee of the US Senate, was investigating US intelligence agencies during the 1970s. The committee found that the CIA had carried out a plot to try and assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro; the Church Committee believed that the president was supportive of the action. However, the president was able to plausibly deny any knowledge of the plot against Castro, since he truly had no knowledge of the specifics of the plan.

Of course, the concept of plausible deniability goes back further than the Church Committee. Likewise, the roots of the term also go further back, at least as far as a National Security Council paper which was issued in 1948, during the presidency of Harry Truman. That paper notably defined covert operations as “all activities…which are conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”

In modern politics, the term plausible deniability often comes up in discussions of political campaigns.  Plausible deniability allows candidates to keep their hands clean when their campaigns, or their supporters, use unsavory campaign tactics and launch dirty attacks against other candidates. For example, some journalists charged that George W Bush’s first presidential campaign deliberately used surrogates in order to smear Bush’s political rivals; by giving the surrogates the dirty work, the campaign escaped public backlash.

Plausible deniability can also refer to a politician’s attempt to test the waters, by quietly trying out how the public might respond to certain acts. In 2015, journalists wrote that Joe Biden wanted to maintain plausible deniability even as he explored a possible White House run. Biden quietly visited certain states and met with certain political power players, without definitively committing himself to throw his hat in the ring. This allowed the former vice president to evaluate his chances of winning the race, without risking the humiliation or loss of faith that could come with trying and failing.

During the Trump administration, some pundits have argued that the president took the concept of plausible deniability to a new level. They argue that the president speaks with a deliberate lack of clarity, implying damaging things but never actually saying them. They believe that the president uses a combination of nonverbal communication, dog whistles, and implication in order to make allegations about his political enemies.

Hastert rule

Hastert rule

The Hastert rule is an informal guiding principle for leaders in the House of Representatives that dictates a majority of the majority party support any measure before it receives a vote.

Origins and History

This principle is named after former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R), who served in the position from 1999 to 2007. Republicans in the House used the principle dating back to Newt Gingrich’s speakership from 1995 to 1999. Gingrich and Hastert responded to prior speakerships that blurred Republican and Democratic lines on areas of common policy interests.

Hastert served as speaker during a period of Republican resurgence with George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and GOP control of the Senate after 2002. In 2004, Hastert said the following about requiring a majority of the majority to schedule floor votes:

On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority. Campaign finance is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority.

The speaker framed this principle as a compromise position from previous years when the Republican majority excluded House Democrats from drafting substantive bills. The Hastert Rule is intended to prevent dissent within the majority and control the majority party’s policy agenda.

After Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to use the Hastert rule in managing her caucus. Pelosi wanted Republicans to be part of the process and sought broader support for major legislation. This appeal for bipartisan votes was countered by an increasingly polarized political environment that created contentious debates over substantive legislation. For example, the 2009 vote on the Affordable Health Care for America Act received only one Republican vote and lost 39 Democratic votes.

Pelosi’s successor, John Boehner (R), flouted the Hastert rule on multiple occasions before resigning from the speakership in 2015. Boehner allowed three bills to reach the floor in 2013 that were not supported by a majority of the Republican legislators. He counted on a small number of Republicans and a majority of Democrats to pass bills reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, approving Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and avoiding a fiscal cliff.

Paul Ryan (R) restored the Hastert rule following his selection as Speaker of the House in 2015. Boehner’s resignation followed pressure by conservative members of the party to reassert the rule. Ryan promised these members that he would apply the rule to any immigration bill that emerged from the U.S. Senate.

Examples

The Hill (April 28, 2016): “Now some conservatives are saying that may be too narrow an application of the GOP practice known for years as the ‘Hastert Rule’.”

The Atlantic (July 21, 2013): “Today, Boehner’s violations of the Hastert rule have angered conservatives who see themselves as the ones marginalized by his ability to get around their demands.”

NPR (June 11, 2013): “Boehner has never committed to follow the Hastert rule in every case, and in reality even Hastert violated his own rule.”

 

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.”

elastic state

A state whose voting outcome in a presidential election is relatively sensitive or responsive to changes in political conditions, such as a change in the national economic mood.

Nate Silver: “Elastic states are those which have a lot of swing voters — that is, voters who could plausibly vote for either party’s candidate. A swing voter is very likely to be an independent voter, since registered Republicans and registered Democrats vote with their party at least 90 percent of the time in most presidential elections. The swing voter is also likely to be devoid of other characteristics that are very strong predictors of voting behavior.”

An inelastic state, by contrast, is one which is relatively insensitive to these changes.

deduct box

The locked box where legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey Long kept “deducts” from state employee salaries to fund his political operation.

Estimates suggest Long collected between $50,000 to $75,000 each election cycle from government workers. The deduct box was kept at his Roosevelt Hotel headquarters in New Orleans.

After being shot in 1935, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Long was asked on his deathbed by Roosevelt Hotel owner Seymour Weiss, “Huey, where is the deduct box?” Before falling into a coma, Long responded, “I’ll tell you later, Seymour.”

The deduct box was never found.

press gaggle

An informal briefing by the White House press secretary that is on the record but video recording is not allowed. It can occur anywhere, such as on Air Force One, but it often describes the informal interactions between the press and the press secretary that occur before a formal White House briefing.

The term likens the members of the press corps to  a “gaggle of geese” honking.

Washington Monthly: “Gaggles historically refer to informal briefings the press secretary conducts with the press pool rather than the entire press corps. They used to happen in the morning, they were more or less off the record, and their purpose was mostly to exchange information – the president’s schedule and briefing schedule, from the administration side; heads-up on likely topics or early comment on pressing issues, from the news side. Briefings were what everybody knows them to be.”

wonk

A “wonk” is a person preoccupied with arcane details of public policy.

DINO

Democrats In Name Only (DINO) is a disparaging term that refers to a Democratic candidate whose political views are seen as insufficiently conforming to the party line.

suspended campaign

When it’s time to leave a race for public office, candidates often announce their “suspended campaign” instead of actually dropping out.

Practically speaking, there is not a big difference and federal law does not define or officially recognize the act of a presidential candidate “suspending” their campaign instead of formally ending it.

However, CNN points out there are two important differences between suspending a campaign and dropping out: 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.”

There’s one more reason to “suspend” a campaign: In theory, a suspended campaign could spring back to life if the political landscape changes dramatically.

Slate observes 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.”

Dorothy Dixer

A planted or pre-arranged question asked of a government minister by a backbencher of his or her own political party during Parliamentary Question Time.

The term refers to American advice columnist Dorothy Dix’s reputed practice of making up her own questions to allow her to publish more interesting answers.

The term has been used in Australian politics since the 1950s, and has become increasingly common in everyday usage, but interestingly is virtually unknown in other countries where Dix’s advice column was equally popular.

GOTV

An acronym for “get out the vote.”

The process by which a political party or campaign urges its supporters to vote in the immediately approaching election.

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