power

party line

A “party line” is 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 might 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.”

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.

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,” which is quite similar to what was once called “honest graft” in the Tammany Hall era.

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.”

Chicago-style politics

“Chicago-style politics” is a phrase used to characterize a supposedly offensive tough, “take-no-prisoners” or “hardball” 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.”

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?

Kingfish

Huey Long

“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.

honest graft

Honest graft refers to the money-making opportunities that might arise while holding public office. The activities are, strictly speaking, legal, although they might raise eyebrows or provoke criticism.

The term “honest graft” was coined by George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall boss and political operative. Plunkitt served in both houses of the New York State legislature during the late 19th century, but he also operated informally out of the New York City courthouse. Today, he is best known for his book on “practical politics,” which includes his definition of honest graft.

Plunkitt argued that it is absolutely legitimate for politicians to take advantage of any opportunities that they come across. Plunkitt looked down on “dishonest graft,” which included corruption and blackmail. But he upheld the right of politicians to line their pockets, as long as they did so legally. “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” he famously said.

Plunkitt did things like buy up public land after he got a tip that his political party was about to build a park in the area. When it came time to construct the park, he sold his land back, holding out for the highest possible price. Plunkitt didn’t see this as a waste of public funds; instead, he compared himself to a stock trader who studies futures. “It’s just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year,” he wrote.

In modern times, few politicians brag about looking for honest graft in the way that Plunkitt did. But journalists and advocacy groups often point out examples of what they see as barely-legal profiteering by politicians. In 2012, CBS News published a detailed look at how members of Congress use their inside knowledge to win big in the stock market. CBS pointed out that Members of Congress are free to use their knowledge about government contracts and upcoming legislation when they trade in the stock market, for example. Many compare this behavior to insider trading, but there is no law to prevent it.

Members of Congress also reportedly made a fortune by betting against the stock market just before the 2008 financial crisis hit. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had, of course, tipped them off about the coming crash. And, like George Plunkitt, members of Congress also use their inside knowledge and power to make profitable real estate deals. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, once used her influence to push through a 20 million dollar waterfront improvement project that drastically increased the value of property which she owned.

Over the years, Bill Clinton has faced questions about the big speaking fees he collects, and about the donations given to the Clinton Foundation. President Trump has also been accused of lining his pockets during his presidency. He has been questioned about his hotels and his golf courses, as well as his business connections to world leaders. Unlike George Plunkitt, none of today’s politicians wants to talk about honest graft, but the allegations persist.

thrown under the bus

To be “thrown under the bus” is to be sacrificed by someone hoping to avoid blame themselves, often in order to make political gain.

Newsweek: “In general, ‘thrown under the bus’ is a metaphor for what happens when someone takes a hit for someone else’s actions. But unlike its etymological cousins, ‘scapegoat’ and ‘fall guy,’ the phrase suggests a degree of intimacy between the blamer and the blamed.”

Word Detective: “I think the key to the phrase really lies in the element of utter betrayal, the sudden, brutal sacrifice of a stalwart and loyal teammate for a temporary and often minor advantage.”

political suicide

“Political suicide” is an unpopular action that is likely to cause a politician’s subsequent defeat at the polls or be cause for him or her to resign from public office.

However, as William Safire notes in Safire’s Political Dictionary, “these suicides, like the report of Mark Twain’s death, are usually exaggerations. Actions unpopular on their face can be take as evidence of courage.”

carpetbagger

A “carpetbagger” is a politician who runs for office or tries to appeal to a constituency in a geographic area where he or she has no roots or connection.

The term traces its roots back to the Civil War era, when it was first coined as a way of deriding someone from the northern states who migrated to the Confederacy to opportunistically benefit from the Reconstruction. Southerners who resented these interlopers started referring to them as “carpetbaggers,” a reference to the satchel – or cheap carpet bag – that held their meager belongings.

At the time, these so-called “carpetbaggers” headed south because the Confederate states needed significant capital investment, and there were financial opportunities that that didn’t exist in the north. Over time, this influx of northerners began to alter the political realities in the south, and the term “carpetbagger” became synonymous with an ill-intentioned foreigner who aligned with slaves, and had an aspirations to hold office in a region in which they were either not welcome or not part of the community.

Often confused with the term “scalawag,” the History Channel explains the difference. While a “carpetbagger” was an interloper who imposed their views on the south, a “scalawag” referred to someone already living in the south who was sympathetic to the northern cause, or specifically in this case, was anti-slavery.

Taken broadly, all northerners who went south in search of opportunity could be called carpetbaggers, but in reality the label didn’t apply to just anyone. To quote a 2014 Mother Jones article: “If you came South and joined up with the Democrats, you were a gentleman, not a carpetbagger.” Hence, it was a mostly partisan label, hurled by Democrats at Republicans.

Famous Restoration carpetbaggers included Adelbert Ames, Hiram Revels, Albion W. Tourgee, and Daniel Henry Chamberlain.

In more modern times, satchels made of carpet are no longer in vogue, and the term carpetbagger can refer to a member of any political party; nor is it limited to Republicans who migrated south. Modern carpetbaggers are sometimes accused of “district shopping.”

One of the most noted examples of modern carpetbagging occurred in 1964, when Bobby Kennedy sought the New York Senate seat. As noted by American Heritage: “…For controversy, comedy, and sheer audacity, no act of carpetbagging is likely to measure up any time soon to what happened when Robert F. Kennedy invaded the Empire State in 1964.” Of course, Kennedy ultimately appealed to New York voters, and he won the seat he sought.

High profile carpetbaggers abound. In 2014, when Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts decided to run for office in New Hampshire, instead of eschewing the charge, he embraced it. As reported in the Washington Post, Brown said “Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. ‘Cause, you know, whatever.”

In 1999, when Hillary Cilnton ran for the New York Senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, charges of carpetbagging accompanied her bid, but were mostly shrugged off by voters. Hillary went on to win to election by 12 points.

inside baseball

The term “inside baseball” refers to any subject matter which is considered too highly specialized to be appreciated by the general public. In politics, inside baseball usually refers to the technical details and the finer points of political strategy, as opposed to big ideas and emotional appeals.

Inside baseball began, of course, as a term describing a particular way of playing baseball. In the 1890s, inside baseball meant relying on bunts, small hits, and stolen bases to win games, instead of trying for home runs and other dramatic plays. Today, that kind of approach is usually called “small ball.” Edward Hugh Hanlon, a turn of the century baseball player and manager, was considered the father of inside baseball.

Over time, the term took on a broader meaning. It came to be used often in political coverage, where it referred to the kinds of issues that only political junkies really care about. The details about how Congressional hearings are run, for example, could be classed as inside baseball. So could the specific rules at a campaign event. Any aspect of politics which is “wonky,” or “nerdy” can also be described as inside baseball.

The term is often used in a negative sense, to criticize an elitist or overly narrow focus. William Safire noted that by 1978, the Washington Post was poking fun at Senator Ted Kennedy for making “inside baseball” jokes in the middle of “boring hearings” in the Senate. Merriam Webster argues that the term is a few decades older than that and, in fact, dates back to at least 1952. In that year, an article in Boston Traveler wrote, “The evidence indicates the Eisenhower staff is going to have to learn their ‘inside baseball’ the hard way.”

William Safire also noted that politicians on the campaign trail often grumble about reporters who, in their view, focus too closely on the details: “In politics, candidates who say they want to discuss larger issues look down their noses at the journalists and think-tankers who bedevil them with questions about campaign techniques, fund-raising plans and poll results. To them, inside baseball has a pejorative connotation that the phrase never gained in the baseball world.” Similarly, journalists sometimes agonize over whether it’s worth reporting on the nitty-gritty of how Washington operates.

At the same time, some journalists argue that reporting on inside baseball is crucial, since it gives the public a window into how the government actually operates. Inside politics can mean the details of how fundraising and lobbying are carried out. It can also include reporting on the nitty-gritty of how bills get passed into law: pork barrel spending, earmarks, logrolling, and other backroom maneuvers can all be described as inside baseball.

In its more positive sense, inside baseball political reporting can mean covering third party politics in detail. It can also mean illuminating an area of politics which would normally be overlooked because it may not be of interest to the general public.

William Safire: “From its sports context comes its political or professional denotation: minutiae savored by the cognoscenti, delicious details, nuances discussed and dissected by aficionados. In politics, candidates who say they want to discuss larger issues look down their noses at the journalists and think-tankers who bedevil them with questions about campaign techniques, fund-raising plans and poll results. To them, inside baseball has a pejorative connotation that the phrase never gained in the baseball world.”

recall election

A recall election allows voters to oust an elected official, by means of a direct vote,while that official is still  in the middle of their term. Recall elections are relatively rare and usually take place after the official does something which their opponents believe to be illegal or immoral.

The laws on recalls vary from state to state. In all but eleven states, some form of recall is allowed. In some states, recalls are allowed for all elected officials. In most states, though, there are strict rules about which officials can be subject to a recall. Many states also have rules about how long officials must serve before they can be recalled.

Federal law does not have any provision for recalling federally-elected officials, although some people have argued that voters have the right to recall members of Congress. The Supreme Court has never ruled on that issue, although the court has ruled that states cannot impose qualifications on members of Congress.

Analysts generally describe the recall as a populist initiative, an attempt to ensure that elected officials remain accountable to their constituents. The recall system dates back to colonial times; the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony allowed for officials to be recalled. After independence, 11 states passed laws allowing for recalls of state officials.  At the time, state legislatures, rather than voters, carried out the recall.

In modern times, voters have mainly used recall elections against local government officials, like mayors and judges. However, governors have also been recalled. In 1921, North Dakota voters used a recall election to oust the state’s governor; the same thing happened in California in 2003.

One of the most dramatic recall elections in recent history happened in Wisconsin, in 2012. The states Democrats and Republicans were locked in a battle over the rights of unions. The fight, which attracted national attention, saw Democratic politicians physically flee the state to avoid having to vote on a bill that would have restricted the right to collective bargaining. With so many lawmakers absent, it was impossible to vote on the measure.

Finally, the Republican leadership amended the bill to make a vote possible, and governor Scott Walker signed it into law. In response, Democrats petitioned to recall Walker. Walker ultimately survived the recall vote, defeating both the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett,and independent candidate Hariprasad Trivedi.

Some pundits believe that recalls are becoming more common in recent years. In August 2019, FiveThirtyEight reported that there were five governors being targeted for recall around the country. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, may be the most high profile case. As of early 2020, Newsom was facing two separate recall efforts, although it was not clear whether either effort would succeed.

Only two governors have ever been successfully recalled. In 1921, Gov. Lynn Frazier of North Dakota was recalled during a dispute about state-owned industries, and in 2003, Gov. Gray Davis of California was recalled over the state budget.

demagogue

A politician whose rhetoric appeals to raw emotions such as fear and hatred in order to gain power.

Former Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) is often cited as a classic demagogue for his practice in the 1950s of smearing prominent Americans with baseless accusations being Communists.