Though the 2016 election is a year and a half away, the media have already decided how to define the emerging candidates. New York Magazine's Jaime Fuller has been cataloging journalists' favorite words to use when describing each presidential aspirant. She and Brooke discuss how these words get chosen, and whether they're useful or just convenient.
BROOKE: As candidates emerge fresh and sleek from their campaign caves, the naming has already begun. It’s an ancient tradition, dating back at least as far as Homer: our heroes may contain multitudes, but we make do with shorthand. Achilles the lionhearted, Athena the tireless one, man-slaughtering Hector, or more appropriate to the current moment, Thersites of the endless speech New York Magazine’s Jaime Fuller has been cataloguing the epithets journalists are coining to encapsulate our current crop of presidential aspirants.. She started by noticing that Jeb Bush has been dubbed... an “introvert.”
FULLER: I'm like, huh, this is kind of a strange word to apply to someone who wants to be president. I went to Nexis and typed in Jeb Bush introvert, and lo and behold there were at least 10 instances in the past decade that he's been called that. And interestingly enough, Jeb Bush was the first one to do it, so we are all doing his bidding when we call him an introvert.
BROOKE: And why do you think that is? Is it because introverts suggests sincerity and smarts?
FULLER: I think so, and especially when you're a presidential candidate, you want to signal that you're different from everyone who's already in Washington and that you're gonna go in and give the place some new blood. And if you're successfully portraying yourself as someone who's not a political type, that's a great way to endear yourself to the public.
BROOKE: Wouldn't it make more sense to dub him the ideological Bush, because he's more driven that way than either his brother or his father? I mean that's useful information.
FULLER: The one thing that i've noticed out of all of the words that have kind of attached themselves to the candidates who are already running is that they have very little to do with their policy preferences.
BROOKE: So introverted was picked by Jeb himself, and then picked up by the rest of us. What about Rand Paul?
FULLER: Very early on he was dubbed the most interesting man in Washington. One after the other, there were two magazine covers, people from bill Maher to Barack Obama have all called Rand Paul a very interesting man.
BROOKE: And he seems to like it too.
FULLER: He did! The day before he announced his presidential campaign, he put out a video and the first person that speaks in the video is Candy Crowley on CNN and she says that Rand Paul is one of the most interesting men in politics.
BROOKE: It's so weird, though. I mean I always think of interesting as kind of an avoidance word? You know, when someone says something that makes no sense, you say, "interesting."
FULLER: The other word that I'm sure you'd find a lot of if you search through Rand Paul coverage is he's also 'different'. But I'm sure that if you asked any voters, even some that have been paying attention a little bit to the election, they wouldn't' be able to tell you WHY Rand Paul is different.
BROOKE: You know you could say slightly modified libertarian. Interesting is about as meaningful as the other word that I hear to him a lot, which is "curly-haired."
FULLER: Yes. These words glom onto the candidates and they stick with them the rest of the race even though they may change a lot.
BROOKE: I was thinking about John McCain who clung to the term maverick, long after he had recanted most of the positions that had made him one.
FULLER: And what you see happening to Rand Paul even at the very early stages of this race is that he's becoming less of a slightly modified libertarian and more like the other candidates. The further you get in a race it's kind of inevitable that candidates who once appeared very different will become more similar and the candidate who ends up winning the nomination is gonna have a similar set of policy proposals.
BROOKE: Ted Cruz, what do we call him?
FULLER: He's been very successful at having people call him the adjective that will help him the most in his campaign: he's the conservative candidate. And if you look at 2014 campaign ads in Republican primaries especially, you will not see a single one where the word conservative doesn't pop up on the screen: it was the adjective that everyone desperately wanted, and the one they needed they thought if they were gonna win the primary.
BROOKE: What about Hillary?
FULLER: Polarizing. That's definitely one that's been used a lot for a long time. And the other is inevitable. I'm sure that the candidate cringes every time they hear it and they're clearly trying to downplay expectations. It's just the worst thing that can possibly be attached to your name before a presidential election.
BROOKE: Now, Marco Rubio, you've observed, actually has three words attached to him, and they are?
FULLER: Youthful, charismatic, ambitious.
BROOKE: All these guys are running for president, so they're all by definition ambitious...
FULLER: That's the one that you can just tell that people are just doing this unconsciously. IF they ever stopped to realize how much of a nothing burger it was, it's worse than interesting in saying absolutely nothing about a candidate
BROOKE: Even youthful is a little dubious. I mean, Ted Cruz is, what, 5 months older? I think it's just that Marco Rubio has the best skin.
FULLER: Yes, and when he announced on Monday, he said that he was the only candidate who could speak for the future, and drilled him how much younger he was than Hillary Clinton. Picking out candidates and saying like, "oh when they started doing this, I was in high school." He definitely sees that as something to stress.
BROOKE: Do you have any words for Scott Walker?
FULLER: If you look at Scott Walker, Bernie Sanders, and Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson -- most of the country has no idea idea who these people are yet. And we're going to watch in real time as adjective to their name.,
BROOKE: Chris Christie has been called brash --
FULLER: I was thinking that word when you said it!
BROOKE: And Martin O'Malley, the only thing I've ever seen attached to him is "relatively unknown".
FULLER: Yeah, no, not the one you want to have attached. Especially if it's gonna be attached for the entire election cycle.
BROOKE: You know, reporters hate to change these labels, and I think it's because once you give it up, you have to write a whole new narrative about a candidate. that's a lot of work.
FULLER: Oh yeah, no, definitely. It is easier to track things when you stuff every one of these holes and watch them progress without altering too much. The one time when you definitely see the words used to describe politicians change is when they go from the campaign trail to being someone with actual political power. It's kind of remarkable.
BROOKE: Can you give me an example?
FULLER: George W Bush. His campaign word was "the compassionate conservative." That's not what he'll be remembered for.
BROOKE: Jaime, thank you very much.
FULLER: Course. Thanks for having me on.
BROOKE: Jaime Fuller is an associate editor for New york Magazine, and a writer for the Daily Intelligencer Blog.