See Under: Gaffe

A guide to the jargon and minutiae of a US presidential election

01 October, 2012

apology tour  Like every presidential election, the 2012 race officially began four years earlier, on the day after Barack Obama delivered his victory speech on 4 November 2008. During his first few months in office, Obama embarked on an effort to mend relations between America and its allies in a series of speeches abroad, an effort mostly notable for its warm reception among members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Most of these otherwise unremarkable speeches might be forgotten today, had they not been enshrined in Republican lore as something far more diabolical: a shameful “apology tour” in which the questionably American president sought forgiveness for America’s sins—which just happened to inspire the title of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s 2010 campaign book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.

Bain Capital  Wildly successful private-equity firm once headed by Romney, whose innovative work in venture capital and leveraged buyouts made him spectacularly rich, with a net worth estimated to be greater than $190 million (R10.26 billion). Romney’s stellar business record (rather than his tenure as a moderate Republican governor) became the cornerstone of both his campaign for president and Obama’s campaign against him—through a relentless series of attack ads that dominated swing-state airwaves all summer long, the most memorable of which more or less held Romney responsible for the death of one laid-off steel plant worker’s wife.

Chick-fil-A  Southern fast-food chain with no conceivable significance to this year’s presidential campaign that nevertheless became the centre of attention for six thrilling weeks of culture-war fever this summer, after its conservative Christian chief operating officer declared same-sex marriage was “inviting God’s judgement on our nation”.

double down  Inexplicably ubiquitous term in this year’s election coverage, used to describe a candidate’s decision to reiterate positions the press views sceptically, as in: “One day after his controversial attack on Obama over assaults on US embassies abroad, Romney doubled down on his criticism this morning.” The rampant overuse of the phrase has produced a kind of meme inflation, with occasional tongue-in-cheek accusations of “tripling” or even “quadrupling down”.

“economy stupid, It’s the”  Folksy catchphrase made famous during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign against President George HW Bush, whose ad nauseam repetition over the past two decades has not managed to dent its totemic power as America’s most beloved political cliché. Popular in all seasons, it has experienced a predictable resurgence in 2012, given the sorry state of the US recovery, though it has been outpaced by a related platitude: “Every day Romney doesn’t talk about the economy is a win for Obama.”

Forward  Widely-mocked Obama 2012 campaign slogan.

gaffe  Famously defined by former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley as “when a politician accidentally tells the truth”, but now used generically to describe any inadvertently damaging statement capable of driving the news cycle for more than an hour. By the beginning of August, months of around-the-clock gaffe-obsessed campaign coverage finally spilled over into a few days of obsessive navel-gazing about around-the-clock gaffe-obsessed campaign coverage—a wondrous cycle of mirrors-within-mirrors that reached its apotheosis at the end of Romney’s gaffe-filled European tour, when a Washington Post reporter shouted “What about your gaffes?” at the passing candidate.

healthcare  The landmark healthcare reform act passed in 2010—now known to its detractors and admirers alike as “Obamacare”—had once appeared to represent a major liability for the president’s re-election after critics successfully painted it as a costly and unconstitutional blow to Americans’ freedom to remain uninsured. This conventional wisdom shifted, however, when the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, who had inconveniently passed a remarkably similar act (aka “Romneycare”) during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.

India  Within the context of a US presidential election, a very large and upwardly mobile Asian country that is neither Pakistan nor China, though these positive attributes do not insulate it from collateral damage in populist attacks on “outsourcing American jobs to Bangalore”. Campaigns are encouraged to trumpet their extraordinary commitment to strengthening the already-firm US-India alliance, which helps rake in mota maal from wealthy NRI donors. To this end, the Republican Party Platform mentioned the country’s name 13 times, while the Democrats only mustered a pathetic three. In spite of this obvious insult, polls indicate that 75 percent of Indian-American voters favour Obama.

Johnson, Lyndon B  The 36th president of the United States, sometimes cited by liberal critics of Obama for his superior skills at bending legislators to his will. More significantly, the last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote—in 1964.

Kessler, Glenn  Journalist who writes the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column, one of several similarly earnest enterprises (like Politifact and devoted to determining the truth or falsehood of campaign statements. The apparently anodyne project of distinguishing fact from fiction briefly took centre stage in the campaign after the Republican National Convention in September, as the two sides traded convoluted epistemological arguments about the nature of truth, usually in the form of attacks on the objectivity of “fact-checking”.

“leading from behind”  Phrase used by an unnamed White House official in an interview with The New Yorker in 2011 to describe the president’s strategy for marshalling allies to join the military intervention in Libya. Ever since, a catchphrase for conservatives (see “apology tour”) who believe Obama is a weak leader determined to see America recede from its position as the world’s sole superpower.

“mom-in-chief”  According to very successful lawyer Michelle Obama, performing the role historically assigned to political wives—“humanising the candidate”—in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, “my main job”.

narrative  Unavoidable and necessarily imprecise term whose significance is inversely proportional to its definability. The “narrative” of the race takes shape over many months in which the “narratives” of each campaign compete for predominance, a contest that consists largely of advancing a “narrative” for each day of the campaign and attempting to block your opponent’s “narrative” from taking hold. The “narrative” collectively established by the press at a given moment, usually involving intimations that one candidate has edged ahead or fallen irrevocably behind, reflects a vague but sometimes self-fulfilling assessment that one candidate’s “narrative” has taken precedence over that of his rival.

optics  Literally, how something looks. An essential concept for campaign coverage, since the “optics” of a statement or event are believed to play a critical role in determining how it might affect the “narrative” of the race. Just as the preoccupation with narrative conceals the uncomfortable fact that it is typically impossible to say which side is “winning” until election day, at which point such prognostications are obsolete, the rhetoric of “optics” inadvertently reveals the inability to measure whether any given development actually impacts the eventual outcome.

Path to Prosperity, The  Otherwise known as “the Ryan budget”, a severe plan for cuts in taxes and spending presented in the House of Representatives by Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, whose reputation as a budget visionary made him a leader of the House Republican caucus and, soon enough, Mitt Romney’s nominee for vice president.

quantitative easing  Unconventional central bank manoeuvre intended to stimulate the economy by using newly created money to purchase financial assets on the open market. The US Federal Reserve initiated a third round of easing (aka QE3) in September, a move applauded by Democrats as necessary but taken too late to benefit Obama’s reelection, while Republicans slammed it as reckless and ineffective, in part because they fear it may be effective.

referendum  According to what The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza dubbed “the political cliché of this election”, the preferred narrative of the Romney campaign holds that the race is a simple referendum on Obama (in which, by implication, Romney’s own qualities are unimportant), while the president’s desired narrative involves a “choice” between his ideas and those of his challenger. After the votes are counted on 6 November, pundits (some armed with exit polls) will retrospectively proclaim that the results confirm the indisputable truth of one narrative or the other.

super PAC  Popular name for the latest innovation in America’s campaign-finance arms race, enabled by two court decisions removing restrictions on the sources and size of contributions to “independent” political action committees not directly affiliated with campaigns. To date, super PACs have spent more than $250 million (R13.5 billion), while the Romney and Obama campaigns (and their affiliated party committees) have raised more than $1.1 billion (R59.4 billion).

tax returns  The subject of an effective (or, depending on your perspective, misleading and unfair) Obama campaign attack on Romney’s wealth, based on the plausible but unsubstantiated insinuation that his adamant refusal to release more than two years of tax returns reflected a need to hide their presumably damaging contents. Wild speculation on the details of Romney’s tax minimisation strategies—which appear to include the use of offshore tax shelters—peaked with Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s repeated allegation (see “double down”) that Romney “didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years”. Ironically, the standard but voluntary practice of releasing tax returns was inaugurated by George Romney, Mitt’s father, when he sought the Republican nomination for president in 1968.

undecideds  Campaign shorthand for the pool of elusive but critical voters who are likely to cast a ballot but have not yet managed to select their preferred candidate; according to recent polls, they constitute only a tiny slice of the electorate, somewhere between four and seven percent. “Moving the needle” among voters yet to pick sides (or willing to switch) is the holy grail of campaign advertising.

voter fraud  One of this election’s minor background storylines, thanks to a controversial Republican effort to pass state laws enforcing stricter photo-identification requirements for voters, in spite of considerable evidence that “in-person voter fraud” is almost non-existent. Democrats, who have mounted ongoing legal challenges to these new statutes in multiple states, fear that poor and minority voters will be disproportionately affected—in sufficient numbers to tip the balance in a very close election.

W Bush, George  Former president notable for his complete absence from this year’s campaign. Bush left office in 2009 with one of the lowest final job-approval ratings among modern presidents (34 percent), but more significantly, his own party’s rightward shift made him a liability even among leading Republicans, who retrospectively decided he was “not conservative enough”.

X, P90-  High-intensity workout routine followed by Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, which became the subject of innumerable news stories after his selection. Gushing coverage of Ryan’s extraordinary physical fitness diminished somewhat in late August, when he was caught fibbing about having run a marathon in under three hours.

“You didn’t build that”  Snippet of an Obama speech from July, in which the president clumsily attempted to make the not unreasonable argument that even “wealthy, successful Americans” had benefited from the support of others. The offending line, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that”, a reference to the construction of infrastructure like roads and bridges and “this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive”, was cleverly yanked out of context and transformed into a central plank in the Republican campaign, as an example of Obama’s “hatred of success”.

Z, Jay-  One of many high-profile celebrity supporters to host fundraisers for Obama’s re-election campaign, along with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, George Clooney, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Jay-Z and Beyoncé threw a $40,000-a-ticket fundraiser for Obama in September, while Republicans fumed that the president was allegedly “too busy” to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the United Nations General Assembly later in the month.