In the Senate, the Escalation of Rhetoric

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By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

As a general rule, the catastrophic fallout from an atomic detonation is not something you want to be associated with. That's why Senate Republicans are trying to avoid the term "nuclear option."

The procedure -- which the GOP is threatening to exercise to thwart Democratic filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominees -- could be implemented as early as this week. But it won't be called the "nuclear option," at least not in the official GOP lexicon. It's akin to McDonald's touting the Quarter Pounder With Cheese as "the heart attack option." Bad marketing, in other words.

Republicans have tried to rechristen "nuclear option" as the "constitutional option," a less radioactive alternative. "Nuclear option" gives Democrats too many opportunities to portray the Republican position as bellicose, doomsday-bringing and generally unpleasant. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would soon "pull the trigger" on the nuclear option, while other Democrats have predicted that Frist would "go nuclear," "start a nuclear war" or "detonate a bomb" on the Senate floor. "We will not negotiate under a nuclear cloud," Reid declared last month. He said nothing about a "constitutional" cloud.

In the face of Republican complaints, media outlets now qualify references to the nuclear option with caveats such as "so-called" or "what Democrats refer to as . . ." "Constitutional option," meanwhile, has become a staple in GOP talking points, chat show appearances and news releases. This was not so a few months ago, when Republicans were using "nuclear option" freely. Or, for that matter, two years ago, when the term was coined by Republican Sen. Trent Lott.

"Nuclear option" remains the most commonly used term, and it is not completely anathema to anti-filibuster Republicans. Some revel in its scorched-earth connotations. On "Crossfire," filibuster opponent the Rev. Jerry Falwell told Ralph Neas of the liberal group People for the American Way that Frist would indeed use "the nuclear option . . . and when that happens you guys are dead in the water, and you ought to be."

Manuel Miranda, a former aide to Frist who is now chairman of the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters, says that "the draconian implications" of "nuclear option" expressed the urgency that filibuster opponents felt. "If these weren't such ominous and terrible terms, I don't think it would have exploded in the press," says Miranda.

Few Americans understand how filibusters work, let alone how Republicans are threatening to circumvent them, or what Democrats might do in response. A filibuster is, essentially, a stalling tactic by which a minority of senators can engage in endless debate until 60 senators vote to end discussion. If GOP leaders move to end filibusters for judicial nominees, Democrats have vowed to effectively halt Senate business.

"The filibuster is a Senate rule that's been changed many times over the years," says Bob Stevenson, Frist's communications director. It wouldn't be a "nuclear option," he says, except for the threatened retaliation of Senate Democrats. GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch has said it's the Democrats who will "blow up the Senate" if Republicans exercise their constitutional right to simply "debate and vote."

Nuclear vs. Constitutional is just the latest in a series of rhetorical wrestling matches pitting Republicans (purveyors of "personal accounts" for Social Security, foes of "the death tax" and "pro-life" opponents of abortion) against Democrats (foes of Social Security "privatization," purveyors of the "inheritance tax" and champions of "a woman's right to choose").

"In general, Republicans have perfected the art of associative naming," says Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor who has studied word choices in public discourse. Associative naming refers to linking products or ideas to pleasant or virtuous-sounding words, or unpleasant ones if you are against them. The term "partial-birth abortion," for example, constitutes a masterstroke in this regard, she says. As soon as opponents of this late-term abortion procedure injected the word "birth" into the debate, they won, Tannen says.

But the nuclear option has proven trickier for Republicans, almost from the time Lott first uttered the phrase during the successful Democratic filibuster against Miguel Estrada, whom Bush had nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. "Nuclear option" instantly became the de facto term of art. Miranda, who resigned as a Frist aide last year amid allegations that he accessed Democratic e-mail memos on judicial nominees, says, "Until the last few weeks, the Democrats owned the field in terms of language." The media only had "the Democratic language" to use, he says.

"The implication of 'nuclear option' is way too hot and extreme," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz, an expert on political phraseology. Words define the debate in politics, he says. "Someone comes up with a cute phrase, like 'nuclear option,' and all of a sudden the debate is named.

"This is an example of how cute phrases can kill." He means this figuratively.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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