Running the Perception Race

In a memo to senior Pentagon officials Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
recently used the term “slog” to describe the situation in Iraq. Not a
quagmire, but a slog. Citing the “preferred choice” of the Oxford English
Dictionary, Rumsfeld defined slog as to “hit or strike hard” or to “assail
violently.” Known for his precision in word selection, Rumsfeld confidently had
his aide read the definition from the Oxford. Attempting to argue with the use
of the word, a reporter joined the linguistic skirmish by offering a different
interpretation citing another dictionary. Nonplussed, Rumsfeld countered,
“There are a lot of different definitions. I read the one I liked.”

Precision in language is an art and not a science, and, as Rumsfeld indicated,
is both selective and subjective. Donald Ellis, professor of communications at
the University of Hartford explains: “What language does is direct people’s
perceptions, and directs them to a particular perspective, and that is what
political debate does. It tries to direct a particular hearer to a particular
understanding or a particular perspective, and the only tool you have with
which to do that is language.”

The same is true with the writing of our laws. As agreements were being crafted
in conference committees on Medicare and energy legislation – a total of more
than 3,000 pages of legislative language combined – Republicans and Democrats
labored furiously to define and refine the individual bills before they were
sent for floor consideration.

The importance of getting a head start in the perception race was reflected in
the flurry of news releases from interest groups and politicians alike, all
decrying or praising the energy bill to media and slogging their way onto fax
machines and into e-mail boxes on Nov. 14.

The legislation was characterized by opponents as “a gift basket for industry
groups,” as well as a payoff to “big oil.” Supporters couched the agreement as
a “compromise.” Ironically, as reporters gathered in a Senate hearing room on
Nov. 15 for a briefing on the legislative minutiae, committee staffers informed them no price tag could be provided because the bill had yet to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Nor had the language of the tax portion of the bill been finalized.

With many Americans having disengaged from the political process – and very few likely to be engaged in examining the details of a 1,700-page energy bill – deft control of the public message and the actual meaning become politically
important to everyone concerned. Whether the issue is immigration, where the
term “illegal immigrant” vies with “undocumented workers” or abortion, where use of “pro- choice” or “pro-life” guard and euphemize a speaker’s viewpoint, language is a potent and ever-evolving means of persuasion by prestidigitation.

“I think you have words that are positive, like patriotism, which everybody wants to claim ownership of,” Ellis says. “Meanings of words are defined by usage. Dictionaries represent common usage and meanings for words but are not etched in stone. There is a certain amount of room for drift and for movement in meaning as a result of the competition for definition.”

There certainly was considerable room between the parties trying to define the
terms for changes in Medicare on the basis of passions both real and polemical.
Even as the focus still remained on the battle over judicial nominations,
Democratic leaders ramped up their public-relations campaigns and press
conferences to accuse Republicans of harboring the desire “to end Medicare as
we know it.”

In literal terms, Republicans did not disagree. They argued that looming fiscal
insolvency, the institutional paralysis within the entitlement program and
rising health-care costs necessitate fundamental reform of Medicare “as we know it,” not elimination of the program.

The wrangling, however, was made more difficult for the political parties by
both pragmatism and principle. The Democratic leadership was apoplectic when
the AARP, the nation’s largest seniors lobby, announced its support for the
legislation worked out in conference. In a Nov. 19 letter to AARP Executive
Director William Novelli, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) expressed “profound concern” about AARP’s endorsement of the “Republican Medicare legislation” and asked “for more information about how you arrived at this decision.”

The letter appeared to be a cordially written, formal request for an
explanation. But Pelosi’s overheated oratory before a crowd of seniors bused in from neighboring states by the Alliance for Retired Americans, the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were chosen to elicit emotion rather than information. The senior set decked out in T-shirts bearing various union logos, or the slogan “Drug Companies Make Me Sick,” reacted on cue to Pelosi’s denunciation of the “shameful Republican bill” and even more enthusiastically when she rhetorically took Novelli and the AARP to the Democratic woodshed.

Insisting the AARP leadership was in “the pocketbook of the Republicans,”
Pelosi suggested a conspiracy, as allegedly proved by the fact that Novelli
penned an introduction to a book written on health care by Newt Gingrich. While
the response did not come from Novelli, that same day AARP President James G.
Parkel released a thoughtful explanation of the endorsement. Acknowledging the
popular perception that AARP “often sides with the prevailing liberal view,”
Parkel insisted the decision to support the bill was “not based on political
calculation or allegiance to rigid ideology or favorite friends.” Instead, it
was “based solely on what this will mean for our members and the health of all
older Americans.”

What it meant within the Democratic caucus was that supporters of the bill
suddenly were in danger of becoming pariahs. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) named
fellow Democratic Reps. Julia Carson of Indiana, Harold Ford of Tennessee and
Sanford Bishop of Georgia as undecided on the bill, and then encouraged the
septuagenarians and octogenarians alike to “pray for these people” before
visiting their offices. “You know what I mean,” Conyers said. The ripple of
nods and “uh-huhs” proved there was no confusion.

Yet in gaining AARP’s backing, conference members also managed to alienate
conservative members of the Republican caucus. AARP opposed a proposed
“premium-support” provision (which was scaled back to a demonstration program)
and insisted an $88 billion subsidy program to provide incentive for employers
to maintain private coverage for Medicare recipients. Already suspicious of an
expansion of the huge entitlement and the bill’s $400 billion price tag,
animated opposition streamed in from conservative and libertarian think tanks,
such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, as well as the
Coalition Against Higher Medicare Drug Costs, which includes such groups as the
American Conservative Union, the National Taxpayers Union, the Family Research
Council and Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Defending the compromise he was instrumental in achieving from criticism among
conservatives in the GOP caucus, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas)
insisted the legislation “complies with my principles” and “covered most of the
bases.” Portraying the agreement as a legislative victory, DeLay was defining
the bill in terms of a best-case scenario to ensure passage, a primary goal of
both the House and Senate conferees. On the other hand, conservatives and
liberals alike see such a “victory” as defeat for their principles.

“That is what a lot of legislation and legislating is about. You take a
conflict and turn it sideways so people can find space to agree,” says Fred
Antczak, professor of rhetoric at the University of Iowa.

Barring a potential filibuster by Democrats in the Senate, Medicare and energy
legislation likely will pass, yet the verbal dustup over judicial nominations
(with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts calling some of the well-
qualified nominees “Neanderthals”) portends an increase, rather than a
decrease, in volatile exchanges. “One of the things that you see happening is
both parties taking the most scurrilous refuge in positions that are so ill-
articulated that everybody fills in with their own definitions. This provides
political cover for them, so as not to have to deal with the most difficult
aspects of a particular debate,” Antczak says.

Such generalization and clouding of language is not necessarily detrimental,
Ellis argues. “It might be enlivening the debate in the long run because for
civil rights again to be a contested term requires us to begin to think about
what it means now. For example, in this particular age of affirmative action,
in a lot of cases you would be able to show that you’re privileging middle- or
upper- class children who happen to be children of color over others who are
not advantaged, but also not in a [minority] category,” he maintains.

That is not to say anything goes in public discourse. As former Vermont
governor Howard Dean recently learned when he advocated reaching out to guys
with Confederate flags on their trucks, imprecise or ill-considered speech can
create trouble, or at least a campaign hiccup. But the potential for being
misunderstood about race may be even greater for GOP candidates. On the other
hand, Ellis says, “You have to get attention, and using some heated language
can work. All political campaigns try to find wedge issues by painting the
other guy as negative.”

Enter the recent decision handed down in Goodridge v. Department of Public
Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Court case involving gay marriage. House
Republicans are moving to pass a constitutional amendment to ban it, while most
Democratic presidential candidates are saying they oppose gay marriage but do
not favor amending the Constitution. Conversely, most Democrats support “civil
unions” that invoke everything but God’s blessing. But even many Republicans
and libertarians do not believe the issue can be ameliorated by fiddling with
the Framer’s document.

A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found 59
percent of respondents opposed gay marriage – an increase of six points from a
July poll. Opposition is even greater (80 percent) among those with higher
levels of religious commitment.

Among Democrats, 46 percent favor or strongly favor gay marriage, while 48
percent oppose or strongly oppose – making this a strategic quandary for
presidential candidates. The impact of this potential wedge issue may depend on
how the issue and the candidates’ positions are defined. Opposition recedes to
51 percent among all voters when the question is support for legal agreements
providing some of the same benefits of marriage or civil unions. Neither
party’s politicians say they are anxious for gay marriage or civil unions to
become a campaign issue, so interest groups with agendas other than election or
re-election may end up driving the issue and defining the debate. The tone and
tenor of their language very well could determine who wins and loses on this
one.

Jennifer G. Hickey is a writer for Insight.

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