News your connection to The Boston Globe

The new rules of political rhetoric

AMERICAN POLITICS is developing a new language and rhythm. And there is more to it than the Germanic accent and action movie dialogue Arnold Schwarzenegger brings to California's gubernatorial recall contest. It's not all "Hasta la vista, baby" for Schwarzenegger. The actor-turned-candidate acknowledges problems and pledges to fix them. He avoids debating specifics, and when he does speak, it is in plain, simple, if simplistic, English. He also smiles often and sometimes even laughs at himself.

If current polls are predictive, Schwarzenegger is headed to Sacramento on the basis of that formula. If he is victorious, one of two conclusions is true: The old political rules do not apply to actors running for political office or the rules are changing for everyone.

Looking to a state like Massachusetts, which is as different as can be from California, it is possible to conclude that the rules have changed for everyone. Consider last year's gubernatorial campaign between a traditional pol -- Democrat Shannon O'Brien -- and the new-style nonpol -- Republican Mitt Romney, venture capitalist and Olympic savior. Romney acknowledged problems and pledged to fix them. He spoke in plain, simple, and sometimes simplistic English -- remember his campaign against Beacon Hill and the "gang of three"? And did he ever smile -- and still does, now that he is governor.

Of course, actor Ronald Reagan used California as a political springboard. If the rules have changed for everyone everywhere, there are plenty of traditional candidates -- from California Governor Gray Davis and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante to most of the Democrats running for president -- who fail to recognize it.

Under the old rules, Schwarzenegger's debate crack about having a part for Arianna Huffington in "Terminator 4" would severely undercut a serious political campaign. Suggesting that a woman's head should be stuffed down a toilet, even in the context of a plot line involving a robot in a Hollywood movie, is usually no way to gain political traction. But there was little outrage when Schwarzenegger said it, as much as Huffington, who has since dropped out of the race, tried to stir it up.

California NOW is belatedly sponsoring a statewide day of protest on Oct. 3, but it is unlikely to derail Schwarzenegger. Groups like NOW hold sway over no one except Democrats running for office. With their knee-jerk response to issues and rhetoric, they are dinosaurs, relics of the politics of the 1960s and 1970s. Today's feminist can listen to Huffington's hypocritical whining and for a fleeting, irreverent moment decide that Huffington is perfect for the part Schwarzenegger is suggesting.

Candidates like Schwarzenegger, Romney, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean are bypassing the traditional political constituencies and cutting right to the chase, the general voting population. They are banking on their gut feeling that American voters are sick to their stomachs of the same old rhetoric, the same old jargon, the same old broken promises.

Much of the Democratic presidential field is stuck in the old rhetoric, jargon and symbolism. Missouri congressman Richard Gephardt and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts are up in arms over the notion that a Democrat -- specifically, Howard Dean -- once said something to the effect that Medicare is poorly run. They are so incensed they are trying to crucify him politically in Iowa and New Hampshire by comparing him with Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who remains the devil incarnate to old-fashioned liberals.

Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is also outraged by Dean's suggestion that Mideast peace negotiations might take an actual turn toward peace if the United States isn't automatically on Israel's side in every "negotiation." Then there is all the vying for endorsements from labor unions, women's organizations, and failed politicians like Gary Hart. Within the context of Democratic primary politics, it is heavy pressure, and Dean is clearly trying to placate the interest groups who hold enormous sway in the process. Every time he does, he weakens his campaign argument to the general voting population.

Running the country or a state takes more than an ability to acknowledge a problem and pledge to fix it, with or without a smile. But persuading voters to provide the opportunity to try requires a candidate who can break with the old political rhetoric and interest groups and speak to them in plain English, with or without an accent.

Being rich and famous doesn't hurt. Right, Arnold?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives