Glossary: an anatomy of key memes, phrases and obsessions in the Wall Street Journal and other GOP language factories, Nov. 1-3, 2013

the American people: In the rhetoric of Ted Cruz’s Manichean morality play, always under threat by any Democratic policy or initiative. Rhetorically, they serve as his ethical lodestar and source of fathomless pathos. The ACA is portrayed as an especially dire existential threat to them. Note: Democrats–or even Republicans opposed to any Cruz policy or vote–are excluded from this group.

arbritrary standards: the provisions of any Democratic policy the GOP rejects. (aka, “diktat”). In the case of the ACA, this becomes a blanket indictment of coverage for maternity care, preventive medicine, family planning, substance abuse, mammograms, etc. Other  “arbitrary” standards would include annual or lifetime reimbursement caps, rate equity for women,  and exclusions for preexisting conditions. The rhetorical irony here is that, strictly speaking all “standards” are “arbitrary”, as opposed, I suppose, to inherent, absolute, or natural. Values, morals, and ethics are all ultimately “arbitrary,” but that doesn’t make them any less defensible or legitimate. The GOP uses “arbitrary” as a pejorative term, while their policies are, on the other hand, “common sense” “model reforms” or “realistic”.

death spiral: what the ACA is purportedly headed into–all imaginary, premature, and unmitigated wishful GOP thinking.

overpriced: all aspects of the ACA, due to its “arbitrary standards”. Never mind that comparing it to the lesser coverage of current policies is comparing apples and oranges, the rhetorical purpose of this descriptor is to undercut all ACA provisions by invidious comparisons.

paternalistic: any imposition of “arbitrary standards” by the “nanny state” or the “urban, genteel elitists”. When Republicans ban abortion, they of course are being “paternalistic,” but “pro-life”. AKA, “liberal paternalism”.

Progressivism: a political, social and economic movement in the united states that lasted from the tun of the 20th Century until the Autumn of 2013, with the coming of Obamacare. progressives were especially known for their “hatred” of free markets, property, and private enterprise.

public outrage: when the GOP astroturfs a citizens’ uprising, it’s called Jacksonian democracy; when the Democrats talk about concepts such as “corporate welfare” or “the 1%,” it’s called divisive class warfare and phony or misplaced anger fomented by “special interests”. AKA, “witch hunt,” “cramdown,” “intimidation” or “inquisition”.

scheme: any Democratic bill or policy–ACA proponents pushing this “scheme” are now seen as liars, grifters, or con artists.

showered: how campaign contributions are bestowed on Democrats.

stacking: what Democrats do when they nominate anyone for an executive or judicial branch appointment.

statists: those who believe government has a role in public policy.

Republicans’ War on Green Energy and Their Curious Born-Again Populism

While the last couple of weeks have been absorbed with gun control and the “fiscal cliff,” the Wall Street Journal editors have also been uncommonly obsessed with energy issues, mostly contrasting “green energy” with fracking.  The five editorials between Dec. 17-Jan 4 on these two subjects paint the usual Manichean world of growth vs. regulation, and “market-driven” natural gas investments vs. “trendy eco projects”. The key editorial in this sequence, “The Jackson Damage” (12/27), lays all the blame for high unemployment at the feet of retiring EPA Director and she-devil Lisa Jackson, whose “aggressive and punitive” regulators have “contributed to business uncertainty and stole dollars otherwise available for private investment.”

At the beating heart of this robbery are Obama’s “repressed green id” and the risible Democratic bias toward “racial justice and economic redistribution”. This bizarre psychoanalysis of the environmental movement seems confused insofar as it pits the desire for social justice, labeled as elitist and “anti-growth”, against American workers’ best interests.

A further twist of this inverted logic occurs in the Jan. 2 editorial, “Crony Capitalism Blowout,” which summons Republicans to a “new populist message” based on–wait for it- less corporate regulation, fewer constraints on corporate profit, lower taxes and less government. In this brave new populist America, “the social service planners who can’t run health care, education, or public housing” will be eclipsed by small businesses, investors, and the affluent. The ants (“those who save their money”) will triumph over the grasshoppers (“those who spend their money”).

But the ants are also due a huge tax break because the $5 million exemption on the estate tax is a “pittance for 50 years of work and thrift”, and should be raised. Only in GOP la-la-land is $5 million a “pittance”. Populism spreads to the 1%!

Let the Chess Game Begin: Rope-A-Dope

If rhetoric is akin to a chess game, with strategies, maneuvers, feints and sudden attacks (sort of like boxing), then Wednesday’s first debate was just the opening gambit. Neither candidate performed his expected role: Romney became a born-again moderate redistributionist, while Obama retreated to the chilly Olympian heights of the Presidency, giving all the correct answers but conveying none of the necessary emotions. So everyone says Obama lost the rhetorical battle (which is always to persuade your audience by connecting to them both emotionally and substantively), though if you read the transcript he pretty much countered everything Romney claims. It just didn’t feel that way.

In Aristotelian terms (Rhetoric, 1356 A), oratorical persuasion relies on three elements: ethos (establishing an image or identity), logos (the appeal to reason through argumentation), and pathos (arousing the audience’s passion).  All three have to work in tandem. On Wednesday, Obama failed at pathos, but Romney is now even more vulnerable on ethos and logos because his identity is ever-shifting and his arguments don’t add up.

Romney’s is now totally exposed as Etch-A-Sketch Man, Hollow Man. The rhetorical key is that Obama did not surrender his authenticity or authority, and did not shape-shift. His identity, gravitas, and dignity remained firmly intact. He banked his fires and  stayed within himself because he’s the one with a core and a consistency. He still has authority because he is the author of himself. He just needs sharper focus and cogency, as Jonathan Alter put it to Rachel Maddow.

He needs presence, not just reporting as present.

The Town Hall format of the next encounter should prove more conducive to openly challenging Romney face to face. Obama can try a little more of that scoffing, mocking tone he clearly excels at when he allows himself off the leash. (He did it a bit on Wednesday, like when he said that Romney’s new campaign slogan should be “never mind.”)

And let’s also hope for the return of Wednesday’s no-show memes that play so well for Obama–practically every women’s issue, “the 47%”, immigration, labor rights, Republican obstructionism, Bain, Romney’s offshore tax shelters, etc. Obama is playing the long game and betting that Romney will not wear well over the next few weeks as his evasions, hypocrisies and contradictions become transparent. Like Warren Buffet says, you don’t know who’s not wearing trunks until the tide goes out.