Sticks and stones, among other things, continue to break bones in Iraq. But this week’s best-covered (if not bloodiest) battle took place on Capitol Hill, and was all about names. Republicans seized on Dems’ disagreement about troop withdrawals, accused their opponents of defeatism, and taunted them for wanting to “cut and run.” Brooke speaks with Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank about weaponizing words.
MIKE PESCA: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is out this week. I'm Mike Pesca.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. More kidnappings, more killings this week in Iraq, but the skirmishes that received the most coverage were on Capitol Hill. Emboldened by last week's overwhelming rejection of an amendment sponsored by John Kerry, calling for a timetable for a pullout from Iraq, Republicans went on the offensive, deriding Democrats for defeatism and disunity.
On Thursday, the Senate soundly defeated two other proposals for troop withdrawal, and through it all, one phrase anchored the Republican message.
MAN: When it gets difficult, they fall back on that party's old pattern of "cutting and running."
MAN: And they're advocating a policy called "cut and run."
MAN: We can't just sit here and wave the white flag, yet we can't cut and run.
MAN: By the way, I just want to know whether Senator Frist has any other words that he knows but "cut and run."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's probably safe to say that not since the 1700s, when "cut and run" was coined as a command for sailors to slash the anchor line and run a ship before the wind, has the phrase been invoked so often. And its ubiquity prompted Washington Post columnist DANA MILBANK: to file a piece for Wednesday's paper, headlined, "It's Time to Cut and Run from Cut and Run."
DANA MILBANK:: The Democrats have tried to come up with a slogan that would be equally compelling. Now, John Kerry tried, "Lie and die." It didn't work out quite as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Murtha, in an interview with Tim Russert, called the Republicans' position "stay and pay."
DANA MILBANK: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think any of these are going to work?
DANA MILBANK: Not necessarily. The last attempt I saw by the Democrats was they said — "The Republican Strategy on Iraq" was the title of their e-mail. Then you opened the e-mail and there was nothing in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DANA MILBANK: So [CHUCKLES] that one doesn't translate quite as well. They might be able to counter it with some slogan of their own, but they haven't been able to agree on one. So it's very hard, I think, for an American to picture what is the opposition's view on Iraq without thinking of "cut and run."
We, the reporters up there on Capitol Hill, when we're talking to the Democratic staffers always think, so the Kerry cut-and-run proposal comes before the Carl Levin cut-and-run proposal. It's just become part of the lexicon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some political analysts have said that Republicans have already won the war of slogans because the Democrats are defending themselves against it.
MAN: This amendment is not cut and run. This is about getting the president to do the job correctly.
MAN: General Casey today suggested that we could withdraw troops, and I don't think anyone is going to label him as cutting and running.
MAN: They're going to try to make the elections in November a choice between cut and run and stay the course. That's not the choice. My plan is not cut and run.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once a Democrat says, this isn't about cutting and running, then the Republicans have framed the debate and already won it.
DANA MILBANK: I think you're right, and I think the same thing was true in the immigration debate, when all they kept saying was, amnesty, amnesty, amnesty. Those in support of the Senate plan were saying, this isn't amnesty, this isn't amnesty. Once one side has defined debate in one of these pithy phrases, if you are working on the other side's words, you're fighting on their turf.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, if you cast your mind back to past slogans in past election seasons, can you think of other good sticky slogans that effectively reduced a nuanced position to a pithy pejorative slam?
DANA MILBANK: Tax and spend, amnesty, cut and run. The whole question is how do you put it on a bumper sticker? You know, the classic was "Save Social Security First." This is what Clinton came up with, and it effectively did change the whole national debate in the 1990s about tax cuts and retiring the deficit. He won that whole debate in large part because of the slogan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Media critic Eric Boehlert wrote on the Huffington Post this week that the media actually are the problem because they've rushed to the judgment that the Republicans have the Democrats on the run with this slogan strategy. He quotes several polls showing that a majority of voters actually favor a pullout strategy and that they would, in fact, support candidates who agree with them.
So have we actually gotten ahead of ourselves here, Dana, by declaring the Republicans the winner so far?
DANA MILBANK: Well, you know, politics is about having one good day followed by another. Then soon you've had a good week. And I think the failure of the Democrats to have these cut-and-run [LAUGHS] amendments get through really caused their position to deteriorate, which becomes the story for a day or two.
You know, you add up a few things like that, and, you know, that will influence coverage. That will influence how the public is viewing the war. But there's any number of other things you've got to weigh against that — you know, the finding of the two mutilated U.S. servicemen. Obviously that would weigh against the Republican view that we should keep on doing exactly what we're doing there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds like what you're saying is that what really matters are votes and events on the ground, and that perhaps this whole slogan discussion is irrelevant. I hope you don't think so, because then we have to find another lead for the program this week.
DANA MILBANK: [LAUGHS] Slogans are terrific. But anything the Congress can do right now is background noise. They could, in theory, de-fund the war in Iraq and bring it to an end right now. Everybody knows that's not going to happen, so the entire debate in the Congress is all about background noise. It has nothing to do with the actual pursuing of the war in Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Dana, thank you very much.
DANA MILBANK: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: DANA MILBANK: is a political columnist for The Washington Post.