Issue Shorthand: A Case of Name It and Flame It

Do you call it the estate tax or the death tax? Do you speak of "Social Security reform" or of "privatizing Social Security"?

Are Democrats pushing a phased withdrawal from Iraq, or a policy of cut-and-run? And do you think of President Bush's approach to illegal immigrants as earned citizenship — or amnesty?

The shorthand you prefer pegs where you stand on each of these issues. It also says a lot about your politics, the news media you spend time with — and the party you'll be voting for come November.

But the power of these mere words and phrases goes further, affecting the fate of the issues themselves. Once it's clear which shorthand is dominating the national conversation, the rest of the process may be a foregone conclusion.

Consider the estate tax. It touches only the largest inheritances (now in the millions of dollars) and has long been considered the most progressive of all taxes. But it offends those who see a lifetime of taxation as being enough, feeling that what's left of one's earnings should go to heirs. The phrase "death tax" has deep roots among anti-tax activists, but it did not enter common parlance until the 1990s. That was when polls began to show an increasing number of people thinking they had to pay the tax (even though most did not). Lo and behold, this was also when momentum began to gather for repeal.

Today, "death tax" is a common on-screen headline on cable TV news, and it appears as shorthand throughout the media. In recent months, more news operations have adopted the phrase "what opponents call the death tax." Others sub the word "Republicans" for "opponents." Either way, the phrase has less bite in this longer form. That's often true of lengthened shorthand: too many words will dull the point.

One potent word that pops up often in political shorthand is "reform." Literally, it means to fix or improve or upgrade. So lawmakers love to use it in bill titles and press releases. And sure enough, most of us in the media mimic it reflexively. We speak of immigration reform, tax reform, ethics reform and campaign finance reform — all without a thought of how the term subtly endorses whatever is proposed.

A recent case in point was President Bush's swipe at revising Social Security, early in his second term. It was not long before critics and commentators starting calling his reform by another word: privatization. The president said he only wanted younger taxpayers to be able to set aside some of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts. He called them "personal accounts." But others called them "private accounts." The battle raged. The Republicans in Congress flinched. The president lost.

Mr. Bush also lost his grip on his top priority in this year's domestic agenda, right about the time people stopped calling his immigration ideas "reform" and too many started calling them "amnesty." You knew the president, and his bipartisan backers in the Senate, were losing this one when he went on TV offering his own definition of amnesty and insisting his plan did not fit it. That signaled point-set-match for his opponents.

We have also seen shorthand make a difference in the wrangle over Iraq. It's been clear for some while that most Americans do not support an open-ended occupation of Iraq. A bare majority in some polls even supports the idea of a phased withdrawal. But when Democrats in the Senate pressed for a timetable, or at least a commitment to withdrawal, they were buried under Republican accusations of "cut and run" defeatism.

Republicans are now confident they have fixed the label of "cut and run" on the Democrats for the rest of this election season. So confident, in fact, that they see themselves having the troop-level issue both ways. As they skewer the opposition, they can also applaud the top U.S. commander in Iraq for saying U.S. combat forces there might be reduced by two brigades this fall (and by half over 18 months).

Republicans can say that's not a timetable, it's simply the policy of the president, who likes to say that "as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down." And so as long as you can call it stand-up-stand-down, you don't have to call it cut-and-run.

And what you call it can make all the difference.

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