Monday, February 11, 2008

"The Language You Use"

Will labeling Barack Obama "inexperienced" or Hillary Clinton "divisive" (which the Republicans absolutely will have to do in the general) turn off voters who tend to lean Republican?

What will be the effect of this in the battleground states?

From where we're sitting, Obama is inexperienced and Clinton is divisive. And saying so is absolutely fair game. With no downside for the Republicans.


We were struck by Gwen Iffil's recent comments to Tim Russert about the role that language has played in the Democratic Primary with (non-"mainstream"?) voters:

MR. RUSSERT: Gwen, you mentioned William Jefferson Clinton, the former president. He was in Maine, and our NBC affiliate caught up with him there, and this was what he had to say about his role in the campaign thus far.


FMR. PRES. BILL CLINTON: Well, everything I have said has been factually accurate. But a lot of things that were said were factually inaccurate. I did not ever criticize Senator Obama personally in South Carolina. I never criticized him personally.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Now, the Obama campaign will say that saying it was "rolling the dice," "risky" or that his position on the war in Iraq was a "fairy tale" was personal criticism. The president differs.

MS. IFILL: You know, there's a real important lesson that's being learned here. Bill Clinton--who you would think would have known the lesson already--figured it out first, which is that you have to be careful in an election like this in the language you use. You have two firsts out here. And so if you make--there are huge groups of people who support each first, women for Hillary--that's roughly--and roughly blacks for Obama.

Here's a problem. They hear things which mainstream voters might not hear. They hear offense; they hear insult. Bill Clinton found that out. He said something, whether you believe what--it was innocent or not, but he said something which struck a tone with a lot of African-American voters, and he's been trying to make it up ever since.

The same problem exists, however, for people who are supporters or just observers of the Clinton campaign, which is you make the slightest comment--there's a, there's a great--I get e-mails from them every day. There's a great groundswell sub rosa argument among women, who feel that this election is being unfairly taken from them; feminists who hear every insult, which is, you know, we heard what happened this week on NBC with the reporter who made the comment about Chelsea. That sort of thing starts to--it just starts a little roll going among people who are feeling aggrieved anyway. So if you make a comment and you say, "Barack Obama, he's a kid," or "Barack Obama, he's like Jesse Jackson," that rings a bell in the ears of a lot of African-American voters and other supporters of Barack Obama. If you make a sexist or demeaning comment about a woman, that also strikes a bell among a lot of women voters. And that's the problem in a tipping-point election, when any, any version of that kind of insult can affect the outcome probably more than the superdelegates.

Food for thought for the Republican Party going into the general election.