The Political Lexicologist: Overreach THIS

What’s the difference between technical jargon and mind-numbing, unthinking cliché? Why, it’s that while I, on occasion, may resort to the former, you, of course, invariably use the latter. In the arid world of politics, however, we are richly blessed with language that is oppressively both and of which the citizenry is the object of technical application. Because, you know, at the (ahem) end of the day (final analysis, when all is said and done and the fat lady sings) going forward in the out years, we’re all just tools.

I wrote about “tools” the other day. Yesterday Ed Shultz, on the obscurely titled Ed Show put together a little video montage (as yet unavailable for embedding) of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s literally overwhelming use of the word “tool” as a tool of rhetorical manipulation – the object of which is to turn citizens into tools of their own economic submission.

Today’s word is “overreach.” No, I am not, in the manner of William Safire, going to explore its deep political etymology, because, frankly, this is a blog, and neither you nor my publisher is paying me enough for that kind of trench work. However, I will note its use in recent years, i.e. the past two. The fundamental conservative charge against Barack Obama during his presidency generally, and most specifically on healthcare reform, has been that he and the Democratic Party were going too far, pursuing liberal policies for which he and the Dems did not have a “mandate.” And what was the word used for this ideological excess?

Obama health care plan’s overreach

Why do we need President Obama’s big-bang health care reform? What’s the real agenda here? If it’s really to cover the truly uninsured, a much cheaper, targeted, small-ball approach would do the trick. On the other hand, maybe the real goal is a larger, ultraliberal plan aimed at a government takeover of the U.S. health system.

Don’t miss author Lawrence Kudlow’s use of the term “ultraliberal,” because in his mental America Max Baucus is a liberal, but the real message here is of some hidden motive and greater, nefarious goal.

In lexical lockstep, we more recently, before November’s election, had the Boston Globe’s always enlightened Jeff Jacoby.

Nearly halfway through the most left-wing, high-spending, grow-the-government presidential term most voters can remember, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many of them are rebelling. The coming Republican wave is an entirely rational response to two years of Democratic arrogance and overreach. As the president and his party are about to learn, treating voters as stupid, malevolent, or confused is not a strategy for victory.

Note if you please, or, rather, please note, the “most left-wing” descriptor. You will find over the history of the contemporary American presidency that every Democratic President is, in conservative memes, the most liberal, left-wing, blah, blah, blah in the memory of someone. Well, this went on ad infinauseum. Now the Democrats have experienced Jacoby’s boldly prognosticated comeuppance, and what do we have? From Steve Benen at Washington Monthly just a couple of weeks ago:

THE INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCE OF OVERREACH…. Just seven weeks into 2011, Republicans at the state and national level have removed words like “modest” and “incremental” from their lexicon. In the wake of last year’s midterm victories, GOP officials are convinced they have a mandate to pursue a bold, right-wing agenda.


The NYT ponders the likelihood of the dreaded “overreach.”

[I]n the view of officials from both major political parties, Republicans may be risking the same kind of electoral backlash Democrats suffered after they were perceived as overreaching.


“If Republicans push too far and overreach their mandate, they will be punished by independent voters, just as they were in 1996,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. “Voters said they wanted bold action. They are getting bold action. But Republicans need to be constantly reminded that the last election was a referendum for change, not a referendum for the G.O.P.”

Now, the article seems to take it as a given that President Obama overreached in 2009. I tend to think that’s ridiculous — the Democratic agenda was consistently modest and in line with the American mainstream, even in facing massive crises — though it appears the establishment has embraced the meme with both arms.

Having said that, it’s still worth appreciating two larger points. The first is that Republicans genuinely seem to believe they have a mandate for a far-right agenda, and they’re wrong.

Once again, there is the general accusation. Like healthcare reform, though, there is a specific policy overreach accusation to be made, from Jill Burcum of the Minneapolis StarTribune.

Will Wisconsin be the GOP’s ‘overreach’ moment?

What appears at first glance to be nothing more than a Midwestern state budget battle is in reality something far bigger.

This is a death match between American’s special-interest titans — wealthy, antiunion corporate-interest groups vs. public-sector unions — and the clash will shape elections nationally in 2012 and beyond.


While Republicans have the votes to pass the bill, they may be setting themselves and party members across the nation up for the same kind of “shellacking” that President Obama and the Democrats got in the 2010 midterms.


The Tea Party and the GOP benefited from the perception that Obama and his party overreached on health care, but that doesn’t mean they are immune from blowback themselves. Taking away workers’ rights sure looks like this movement’s overreach moment.

There appear to be two variant uses of “overreach,” the second not clearly delineated in any of these excerpts, though Benen points the way to it. The former concerns the definition of politics as “the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government,” the latter as “the art or science of government.” If a winning party misjudges what the electorate charged it to do, the first sense of the word suggests, there will be future electoral consequences in reaction: “blowback.” How might the misjudgment be made? One way is to misjudge the electorate. Republicans like reassuringly to repeat that the U.S. is a center-right nation. I and many others believe this to be wrong – that the U.S. is a center-left nation with a center-right self-image. Pose issues to people separated from ideologically-framed terminology (liberal, conservative) and they tend to support the “liberal” position, according to this week’s NBC/WSJ poll. Rhetoric has played a central role in contemporary Republican superiority in pursuing that former definition of politics.

Another way a party cannot misjudge the electorate’s charge is by misjudging whatever message voters are believed to have sent in their electoral choices: what was the “mandate.” Well, now, argument over the character of the electorate and over voters’ message to elected officials when they vote for them – that’s the very stuff of politics, endlessly debatable. But the concept of mandate leads to that second variant meaning of overreach. On what policy prescriptions did a party clearly and openly run for office, and on which did they not?

Barack Obama and the Democrats ran on a policy platform that openly advocated healthcare overhaul. Whether what was enacted was more or too different from what was advocated was a major source of debate. It is a mistaken debate, but it can only be had if the there was advocacy to begin. The GOP and Republican governors did not openly advocate a policy of ending collective bargaining and destroying organized labor, whatever the expressed reason for the policy. They never stated to the public, as did Sen. Jim DeMint yesterday, “I really don’t think that collective bargaining has any place in representative government.”

This second form of overreach is not political in the nature of the “game” of politics, of misunderstanding the electorate. It is political in the nature of governance itself, of hiding from the voters the true ideological goals and political ends the candidates and party intend to pursue – of deceiving the electorate. It is, simply, undemocratic.


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