I DIDN'T SEE the big debate among the Democratic presidential candidates last Thursday night, held on a college campus in lower Manhattan, but I did read a transcript. I read every syllable, dammit. It came to more than 20,000 words. And such words! Reading my way through, I was struck again by the verbal tics that politicians, particularly Democratic politicians, rely on when they're on the spot or in the spotlight.
"Tics" may not be the right term. "Hiccups" is probably better, since what I have in mind are tiny eructations of words, little bubbles that are released and then burst almost before they're noticed. The intent, as in so many verbal reflexes, is to make the speaker seem somehow grander, stronger, more resolute or more sensitive, without entangling him in any discernible meaning. Hiccups are intensifiers. And to the casual listener--not heard but half heard--they can sound impressive.
Senator John Kerry has developed a particularly ingenious formulation, and he used it again Thursday night. Few men have ever looked less in need of intensifiers, but when Kerry gets wound up he reveals a need to appear existential--as though he had impatiently stripped away everything inessential to uncover the root of the matter. In the debate he was asked what he would do about the recently rediscovered problem of corporate greed. "There are many things we can do," he said. He didn't say what they were, because the whole issue inspired him to think more grandly, in a way that transcends specificity: "It goes to the core of how Americans ought to have a relationship between worker and those they work for," he said. "This goes to the core of what we are and who we are as Americans."
The grandiosity of these sentences is unmistakable. Note that the issue under discussion doesn't go to the question of who we are as Americans, but to the core, even though what we are and who we are as Americans already sounds like the core of whatever it is he's talking about. Kerry manages to go deeper--penetrating to the core of the core. Delivered in the Kerry baritone, these sentences carry a marvelous effect, suggestive of philosophy, history, the whole span of our national experience. And of course they don't mean anything. Look for a lot more "goes to" and "core" and "who we are as Americans" (alternative: "who we are as a country") along the campaign trail in the next few months. If Kerry lasts a few months.
The greatest of the Democratic hiccups was never far from any debater's lips. "Corporate America has lost touch with the average Americans' concern in this country," said Gov. Howard Dean. "We have a crisis of confidence in this country," said Rep. Dick Gephardt. "And that means . . . making certain that opportunity is kept alive in this country," said Amb. Carol Moseley Braun. "If you look at the ports in this country," said Rev. Al Sharpton, "we're in disrepair." "We need to empower working people so that they have more voice, not less voice in this country," said Sen. John Edwards. "Many Americans are feeling mugged by what is happening in this country," said Sen. Kerry. "The problems that exist on Wall Street today really go to the center of a debate in this country," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Kucinich must not have gotten the memo that Democrats will now be going to the core rather than the center of things, but he has the in this country hiccup down cold. In answer to one question he used the phrase three times. Highest honors, however, go to Gen. Wesley Clark. Though a newcomer to the race, he proved himself an in this country pro. "American business is the source of jobs and opportunity in this country," he said. "We need to go right at the jobs problem in this country. I've got a better job plan in eight days than George Bush had in three years in this country." Then he said: "I think we do have to recognize that home ownership is critical in this country." Then he said: "I think in this country we have to recognize we are in a health care crisis." Then he said . . . but you get the idea.
It is a puzzling trope, a hiccup that's hard to figure. During the debate it erupted almost 30 times, and in every sentence in which it was used, it was obviously dispensable. Surely the Democratic candidates know that we know that when they say, "We need to go right at the jobs problem," they're not talking about the jobs problem in, say, Monaco. (Is there a jobs problem in Monaco?) And this particular case of the hiccups strikes liberal Democrats more than anyone else. The unanswerable question is why. Perhaps it's a holdover from their more radical past, when, as I well recall, the phrase was used just as often as it is today, but always dripping with disdain: in this country of yours that everybody thinks is so great. . . . Nowadays, of course, the anti-American disdain is gone. The verbal reflex remains. It must be a hard habit to break. But this reporter has this request: Try.
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for Bloomberg News.