The Power of Words

Juggernaut. Inevitable. Commanding lead.

We’ll see tonight how inevitable Mitt Romney is. But when Andrea Mitchell called the Romney campaign a juggernaut two days ago, I squawked back to the TV — “He won by 8 votes in Iowa. He got the same percentage of votes as four years ago after running for four more years. Juggernaut?????”

Campaign reporting, especially with all those cable hours to fill, is usually just dogs panting after whatever squirrel’s running through the yard at the moment. Candidates (usually those who are behind) always say there’s only one poll that matters — the election. Romney is assumed to be inevitable because he’s polling ahead in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, because he has a ton of money, and because his opponents are so lame. But things can change in a hurry — Romney’s lead is melting as I type — unless the media keeps broadcasting self-fulfilling prophecies.

Romney could have been labeled a failure after Iowa — four years, millions of dollars, no gain in votes or percentage, stuck at 25%, the majority of voters rejecting him. LBJ won the New Hampshire primary in 1968 with 49.5% of the vote to Gene McCarthy’s 42.4%. But the media called this a loss for LBJ — a sitting president nearly tied by an upstart senator with a bunch of kids campaigning for him. New Hampshire played a huge role in Johnson saying he wouldn’t run for reelection.

Iowa could have been called an embarrassing loss for Romney. His candidacy could have been called wounded. But instead, his 8-vote landslide kept an imaginary juggernaut rolling. I think this is irresponsible inaccurate reporting by the media.

We’ll see how the juggernaut rolls tonight.

New Hampshire has gotten interesting because of the power of words. President Obama hasn’t been able to capture people’s anger about what was done to the economy by speculators in any succinct way. It took a blogger to come up with “We are the 99 percent.” Hugely powerful because of its simplicity.

The New York Times ran front-page stories about Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital through November and December. The most comprehensive on Nov. 12, showed exactly what what Bain did in many cases — piled debt on the company, Dade International, killed 1,700 jobs, and left the company no option but bankruptcy. Bain took $342 million for itself. (How’s that for pay for performance?)

So Romney’s Bain record has been out there for anyone to see. Only in the last few days have Romney’s opponents started nailing him coherently for Bain. And it’s simple language that gains traction. “Predatory capitalism.” “Outsourcing jobs.”

And, from the master of invective, the “relentlessly positive” NastyNewt Gingrich, this gem in today’s Times: “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?” Pretty clear, pretty punchy. Better if he were more specific about “manipulate” — kill jobs, lower wages, cut benefits. (And how will any of these hypocritical weasels defend their opposition to effective regulation of the very behavior they are criticizing at Bain once they’re done smacking Mitt over the head?)

“Makes millions off killing jobs. Your kind of guy?” Simple bumper sticker.

Simple clear language — it works.

–Bruce Benidt
(Image from Politico.com)

28 thoughts on “The Power of Words

  1. Jeremy Powers says:

    Your headline says it all. Words have meaning. But today – more importantly – words have power. Connotation is more important than definition. And media types – we won’t call them reporters – who use power words are they, themselves, more powerful. Define juggernaut: a massive inexorable force, campaign, movement, or object that crushes whatever is in its path. There is nothing “juggernautic” (or is it “juggernaustic”) about Romney, except for maybe how his own religion is such a massive force that is crushing his best own interests in the eyes of his would-be supporters.

    It’s not just words, though. It is actions. Some actions are strong. Some are weak. If you polled the country, most would say they want congress to work together to get things done. And the talking heads all but command it. That implies progress. And it demands compromise. But as soon as Pres. Obama compromises, the press label him weak. The Star Tribune’s front-page analysis of virtually every bill is larger than the story about what the bill will, or hopes to, accomplish. So, to do what is best for the country by working together and compromising, at the request of nearly everyone, you’re labeled an abject failure by the people who wanted you to do it.

    The failure of new media – including new newspapers and new television – is that facts are replaced by emotion, knowledge is replaced by instinct and definition is replaced by connotation. And the consumers of this “news” are either ignorant or, frankly, intentionally don’t want to know the facts.

  2. PM says:

    Clearly the “Juggernaut” imagery is a bit much. But there are also countervailing tendencies in the media, as well. For example–they love a horse race. They do not want this primary se.ason to be over–coverage of a tight election helps to sell advertising, and the media want this to be a gripping story for as long as they can stretch it out.

    Bottom line–it is a juggernaut until it isn’t, and the media will immediately start talking about the fall of Romney as soon as they possibly can.

    Don’t expect consistency from the media.That is not what they are selling.

  3. Joe Loveland says:

    Is it word-smithing that makes this especially newsworthy, or the messenger?

    That is, is the fact that the “predatory capitalism” charge is coming from pro-capitalism Republicans what makes this anti-Romney attack especially newsworthy and sticky?

    If the DNC Chair says “predatory capitalism,” reporters snooze. If Gingrich, Huntsman and Parry say it, that’s news. That’s man bites dog.

    1. Jeremy Powers says:

      Both parties take a Siamese Fighting Fish posture during this time of a campaign: you let the other party bloody each other and then wait to finish off the last weakened opponent.

  4. john sherman says:

    That’s why guys like Frank Luntz are so important: don’t call them vulture capitalists, call them job creators; don’t call it a tax on money you never worked for, call it a death tax. If only there were an Orwell with a audience who would call things by their right names.

  5. PM says:

    Well, I’d have to say that was a win for Mitt, and a loss for Santorum.

    Now we get to see all of the shenanigans in S.C. Oh, if only Lee Atwater was still around!

  6. The record IS out there regarding Bain Capital…for all to see. I don’t find it at all disturbing that firms like Bain Capital take over failing or struggling enterprises and try to turn them around and sell them at a profit. Do they cost jobs? Absolutely. Do they save jobs? Absolutey. What’s the alternative? Let a company fail and everyone be out of work? I know it’s difficult to fathom for anyone who has never had to make a payroll, but a piece of something is better than nothing from nothing (chime in here with some Billy Preston if you are so inclined). Look at Hostess Brands Inc. filing for bankruptcy protection recently after contending with 12 union contracts and bloated benefit costs. The company is looking for a Bain Capital to come in and buy it or for union members (workers) to step up and buy it. Don’t hold your breath on that one.

  7. Good comments everybody. Mike, I love still disagreeing with you after all these years.

    Clearly the juggernaut still juggered in New Hampshire — although a majority still voted for somebody other than Mitt. But the words are eroding his lead in South Carolina.

    Mitt’s trying to say an attack on his Bain record is an attack on Capitalism and Free Enterprise. Bullshit. That would be like Jeremy and Mike criticizing my teaching back at Mankato State and me saying they were attacking higher education.

  8. PM says:

    Mike:

    i think that there are two different arguments to be made here–I personally have no doubt that there is an important and essential role that is played in our economy by companies like Bain. That is the argument that has been presented in the pages of the WSJ. I think that it is technically correct, although there are arguments at the edges (are private equity managers and investors rewarded too much? what is the proper tax treatment of them? Just how large a role should they play? Is the use (and the tax treatment of) debt appropriate? should we be encouraging the substitution of debt for equity? etc.)

    The larger and more important argument (at least for a presidential candidate like Mitt) is if he can sell to the American people the idea that companies like Bain offer valuable models for the US economy and its problems. He has not yet successfully done so, and his major response (that his critics are envious) is tone deaf, IMHO.

    i do not think that class warfare, envy, etc., are going to answer this time around. I think that this is a very closely related question to the 99% vs. 1%. argument, and to the entire discussion about the economy and its aftermath (extension of unemployment insurance, etc.). Frankly, I think that it is really tough for Mitt Romney (clearly one of the 1%, and someone who would personally benefit from his own policy proposals, and who benefited from past republican policy proposals) to make that case. Talking about income inequality and the middle class is not something that is only going to happen in quiet rooms, nor will it be banished from the campaign. Mitt and the Republicans have not yet found an answer to it that is satisfactory, and i do not think they will win in November if they can not address this.

  9. Erik says:

    I suspect the power of archtype is greater than the power of words. If that’s the case, Romney’s business career will be overshadowed by his most well known attribute; that he’s a Mormon.

    And the problem for Democrats is, people think Mormons are weird, but that brand of weirdness is pegged to a Ned Flanders caricature. That is to say, people know he’s probably a God botherer, but one who is nice, well mannered, and well intentioned. As a result it’s going to be difficult to use the standard liberal playbook to paint Romney as a bad person merely because he’s a Republican.

    1. PM says:

      Ahhh, the South Park version of Mormonism.

      No, i think that rather Romney will be viewed as awkward, ill at ease with people, not someone you’d like to have a beer with (or even a cup of water, given that he is Mormon), foreign to the average American because of his Mormonism, his family wealth, his work experience. It will not be easy for people to relate to him, much less admire him or trust him.

      Here is the contrast i expect Democrats to make:

      Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, released a memo showing how the president’s campaign will try to take the Bain attacks further, Politico’s James Hohmann reports. Cutter says Romney made a very different choice from her boss:

      President Obama – who, like Mitt Romney, earned a degree from Harvard and all the opportunities that affords – began his career helping jobless workers in the shadow of a closed-down steel mill. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, made millions closing down steel mills.

      In other words: They both went to a fancy school, unlike you, but one chose to help people like you and one chose to hurt people like you. Which is a pretty simple story.

      from:http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/01/romneys-defense-bain-doesnt-fit-pithy-soundbite/47381/

      1. Erik says:

        Yes…. I do not believe we have a cultural reference for malevolent Mormons. So as I say, his strong faith notwithstanding it will be difficult to suggest he’s a bad person merely because he’s a Republican or Christian for that matter.

      2. Joe Loveland says:

        Re: “Difficult to suggest he’s a bad person”

        Google “Romney dog” for an issue a little more approachable than high finance. The Crate Gate story will stick with a lot of dog lovers.

      3. Erik says:

        Are you kidding me? My father is a couple years older than Romney. My mother is the same age. It’s 1985, Mom and dad load everyone in the Delta 88 and go on a vacation. Dad is a bit of a goofball, and stressed out…. This stuff is completely endearing.

      4. PM says:

        I think that it re-enforces the “Mitt is not like the rest of us” line a little bit, but hard to imagine this as disqualifying him from the office of the Presidency.

        (*also kind of reminds me of the scene in There is something about Mary)

      5. Erik says:

        Its not practically different than putting a dog in a porta kennel, and putting that in the back of an open pickup. Its done all the time. They’re dogs.

      6. Joe Loveland says:

        A pickup cab breaking the wind is a HUGE qualitiative difference from being on top of a vehicle at highway speeds. This episode is obviously not a disqualifier, but it makes me think the guy is either cruel or a moron. Before this episode, I didn’t think he was either. Just because it’s not issue-based doesn’t mean it’s not potentially impactful.

      7. PM says:

        Joe:

        It might also suggest that he just doesn’t care (as opposed to cruel or a moron)–which says a lot all by itself. Bottom line–this is not a positive aspect of the mind of Mitt.

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