Voice

A dictionary of American politics -- Part I (GOP Speak)

George Bernard Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. But now we live in the Internet Age and English has, in way that still galls the Gaullists, become the lingua franca of e-cosmopolitans. The result is that now our language can separate Americans not just from the English but from all the world.

This is especially true when customs and culture and quirks of local context enter into matters. For example, someone outside the United States might pick up a newspaper or log on to a website to read about this week's Iowa caucuses and conclude that they were an important political event in the U.S., that the winners won or that the losers lost. After all, that's what the words on the page or on the screen seemed to say. But the reality is that to understand what's going on in U.S. politics, the international observer really needs some kind of translation device, a U.S. politics to English dictionary, that will help reveal the real meaning obscured by the words.

So let me try to help. Here are a few key translations that may be of use during the current Republican campaign. Note, there are similarly twisted definitions used by Democrats which I will get to later:

Ron Paul:  This is electoral English for "none of the above."  When voters cast a vote for Paul, it is less for the man (there really is a Ron Paul) or his policies (a strange brew of Austrian economics, isolationism, and a late night television ad for solid gold medallions commemorating the historic events at Area 51) than it is a protest vote against the system. 

Ron Paul Supporters: These are young white guys who have never had a date who need something to occupy them until the movie of "The Hobbit" is released...or they are older libertarians who believe that the Fed is where Bilderbergers meet to devalue the dollars they need in order to buy the guns with which they intend to protect their homes from space aliens or people from New York.

Ronald Reagan: This is not a reference to the real Ronald Reagan -- an American president from a while back. Instead it refers to an imaginary, idealized vision of a conservative president developed by the right wing of the Republican Party. Reagan was hardly a true conservative, growing government enormously, creating burgeoning deficits, actively working with Democrats, depending heavily on compromises that drew him closer to a Democratic sub-group that supported him, and hardly living by anything that might be considered the "family values" touted by the religious right. 

Conservative Base of the Republican Party: This is a term for the small minority of right wing Republicans who have been successful at conveying the idea that they control the Republican Party even though they have not be able to select a single genuine member of their faction as the party's candidate since 1964.

Attack Ads: These are what candidates call ads that (often accurately) recount weak parts of their records. Oddly, these are often acts of compromise that actually should be seen as the high points of their public service careers. The synonym for "attack ad" when it refers to an ad you would run against an opponent is "the truth."

Winning: This is not to be confused with the term "winning" made popular by deranged, drug-addled actor Charlie Sheen to refer to the disasters that made his career a shambles.  But it does share some similarities in that it seldom actually refers to winning. Candidates who finish second or third or even fourth or fifth in primaries might be said to have "won" because...well, because they don't want to admit they have lost. Which they did. A recent great example of this kind of spin is when after the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul observed that if you counted the two guys who finished ahead of him as one guy then he would have finished second. 

Getting Tough with Iran: On a variety of policy issues what candidates say is very different from what they actually mean or intend to do. Therefore it is very important for non-native electoral English speakers to understand the real meaning of key foreign policy assertions lest they fear some of what is promised actually might happen. For example, GOP candidates, in an effort to show they are strong on defense will bend over backwards to say they will/would attack Iran to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. They are no more likely to than any American president -- which is to say, they are probably likely to support an attack on Iran by the Israelis if it needed to be made (as would the Saudis and a number of other of Iran's uncomfortable neighbors.)

Punishing China: This is another promise to be taken with a grain of salt. Mitt Romney, the almost certain GOP presidential candidate, has said he will be tough on the Chinese on trade. He won't be. His friends in business lean heavily against alienating the Chinese whose market is so attractive to them. So he'll rattle the economic saber but should he win election he will pull his punches.

Socialism: This is not a reference to the political theories of Karl Marx nor any descended from them. Rather it is a term used by Republicans to describe any government program that benefits parts of the population other than the rich or big business. It is designed to make the President of the United States seem more godless and "other" like. It implies he speaks Russian or Chinese to his children while burning American flags in secret possibly satanic rituals.

Europe: Hotbed of "socialism."  A synonym for failure...despite the fact that much of northern Europe outperforms the U.S. by almost every economic and quality of life measure.

Israel: A country Republicans profess to love...primarily because so many of them believe that someday God will need it to progress with his plans to consign all the current residents of the country to Hell. 

Big Government: This is a reference to all government programs that do not actually provide benefits to rich people or big business. 

Defense Spending: This is the spending that Jesus Christ himself requested in the Bible.  It is the foundation of America, our economy, our goodness and our only line of defense against godless heathens -- especially ones that don't look like us.

The Constitution: This is a document that most candidates are so confident no one has read that they feel free to use it to justify any position they might hold...provided they can't actually find a better reference to it in the Bible. In fact, many Republican voters believe that the constitution is actually a part of the Bible, kind of along the lines of those "extras" that come with a DVD. All of it, that is except the "separation of Church and State," a thing which they view as a figment of socialist imaginations probably created by the same Europeans who made up that absurd idea of global warming.

Democracy: The system of government in which rich people and select corporations express their choice for candidates by voting with their money which, as the Supreme Court has upheld, is actually "speech" and protected, of course, by the Constitution.  

Money: Speech

Speech: Money

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

How do you say I told you so in Mayan?

First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen.  First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won't recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast. 

Seriously. That's how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what's a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy -- and utterly unfounded -- optimism about the Middle East? 

The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu.  With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country's problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year. 

That's not to say I actually think that Netanyahu's combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don't. It's actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning's first news dump was for me, I can't help but feel worse is in store.

Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes. 

Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it's an important step in the right direction.

Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves -- indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived.  Certainly, that's been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.

We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East -- which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus -- festers and boils this year as today's headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year's elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense. 

And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made...and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can't and shouldn't attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.

Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East -- uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"...I know what we're up against!  I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's brain!) -- and my newest New Year's resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.

OHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Image