“Time in the barrel” refers to a period when a political candidate, party, or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny or attack by the media, opposition, or public opinion.
The term comes from the practice of storing wine in a barrel, where it undergoes a period of aging, maturation, and scrutiny before being bottled and sold to the public.
In politics, time in the barrel can have a similar effect on the subject under scrutiny, either exposing its flaws or strengths in the eyes of the public.
Mark Halperin calls it “one of the great metaphors in the history of American politics.”
The term gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly during the presidential campaigns, when the media would focus its attention on a particular candidate’s past, character, or record, leading to a barrage of negative coverage and damaging revelations.
Candidates who experienced time in the barrel would often see their poll numbers plummet, their support base erode, or their public image tarnished beyond repair.
As a result, campaigns have become more cautious and strategic in their messaging, trying to avoid any missteps or controversies that could trigger a time in the barrel.
There are many factors that can trigger a time in the barrel, including scandal, gaffes, missteps, controversy, policy failure, or negative media coverage.
In some cases, the subject may be innocent or exaggerated, but the damage to their reputation and credibility can be severe.
For example, in the 2004 presidential election, Democratic nominee John Kerry was subjected to a time in the barrel when a group of veterans subjected him to Swiftboating. They were opposed to his candidacy launched a series of ads questioning his military record, leading to a media frenzy and public doubts about his integrity and patriotism.
Similarly, in the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was subjected to a time in the barrel when a video surfaced showing him making disparaging remarks about 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes, leading to accusations of elitism, insensitivity, and lack of empathy.
The incident derailed Romney’s campaign and became a defining moment of his failed bid for the presidency.
However, some politicians may use time in the barrel to their advantage, either by weathering the storm and coming out stronger, or by using the controversy to rally their base and mobilize their supporters.
For example, in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was subjected to a time in the barrel after a video surfaced showing him making lewd comments about women, leading to widespread condemnation and calls for him to drop out of the race.
However, Trump refused to apologize, instead attacking his opponent and the media for hypocrisy and bias.
The incident energized his supporters and reinforced his image as a maverick outsider who was not beholden to political correctness or the establishment.
Examples of “time in the barrel” in a sentence:
- The candidate’s controversial remarks about immigration policy put him in the time in the barrel, as media outlets and political opponents scrutinized his record and statements.
- The policy proposal, which had been popular among the party’s base, suddenly found itself in the time in the barrel after a series of high-profile missteps and opposition from interest groups.
- The incumbent senator hoped to avoid a time in the barrel during the election season by touting her accomplishments and focusing on issues with broad appeal to voters.