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For Republican Wordsmiths, Opposites Attract

April 20, 2010

In a rare moment of Republican candor, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker debunked the talking point at the center of the GOP's campaign to protect predatory Wall Street bankers. Bucking his party's leadership, Corker defended reform provisions charging banks to create a resolution fund for winding down failing institutions, calling it "anything but a bailout." In so doing, Corker exposed one of the GOP's famously tried and untrue tactics for peddling wildly unpopular Republican policies to the American people. Call it "Opposites Attract."
As the White House and Senate Democrats led by Chris Dodd (D-CT) were finalizing the financial reform bill now before the Senate earlier this year, legendary GOP spinmeister Frank Luntz penned instructions for Congressional Republicans opposing it. Success, he insisted, rested on painting the bill as its polar opposite and calling it a "permanent bailout fund." Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans faithfully complied, endlessly parroting Luntz's sound bite about "endless government bailouts."
While McConnell was rightly and mercilessly ridiculed for his mindless regurgitation (even by his hometown paper), he nevertheless secured the signatures of all 41 GOP Senators on a letter promising opposition to the current bill. But on Monday, Corker demolished McConnell's myth-making that "as a factual matter, the bill creates bailout funds, authorizes bailouts, allows for backdoor bailouts in the FDIC, Treasury and the Fed and even expands the scope of future bailouts." Corker took to the Senate floor to announce:

"But this fund that's been set up is anything but a bailout. It's been set up to, in essence, provide upfront funding by the industry so that when these companies are seized, there's money available to make payroll and to wind it down while the pieces are being sold off. Now, a lot of people have said this is a Republican idea. There's no question that this is something Sheila Bair has proposed. The FDIC wants to see a pre-fund. The treasury would like to see a post-fund."

(Ironies abound here. This approach is not only a Republican idea, but would in essence constitute an industry-funded "death panel" for faltering, end-of-life financial institutions. Nevertheless, as Bloomberg reported today, Democrats will likely drop the current $50 billion fund proposal in their quixotic quest for even a single Republican vote.)
Whatever the fate of the resolution fund, the Republican "opposites attract" ploy is alive and well.
The Bush administration was particularly adept at masking unpopular policies with names that convey the opposite of their intended effects.
Take, for example, "Healthy Forests." As Joe Lieberman (yes, that Joe Lieberman) warned in 2003, George W. Bush's policy "thin our forests in America" was nothing more than a gift to loggers:

''He's using the real need to clear brush and small trees from our forests as an excuse for a timber industry giveaway...This is logging industry greed masquerading as environmental need."

By 2006, studies confirmed the New York Times' worry that "the president's Healthy Forests initiative...could end up promoting needless logging in the name of fire suppression."
President Bush's "Clear Skies" plan for gutting the Clean Air Act was yet another masterpiece of oxymoronic public policy. A year after it was proposed, a research firm commissioned by the Bush administration itself concluded that the President's plan was the weakest of three it evaluated when it came to lowering emissions from coal-fired power plants. In 2005, the New York Times similarly lamented the Republican misdirection on environmental protection:

Clear Skies is a bad bill, which in the name of streamlining current law would offer considerably more relief to the industries that pollute the air than to the citizens who breathe it.

Of course, the double-speak of Republican-branded public policy hardly began with George W. Bush. In the 1990's, the GOP led by Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott championed a war on union political power. Hoping to silence (or at least muffle) workers' political speech, they sought to cut off union fundraising at the knees. Their name for the endeavor? "Paycheck Protection."
As the media lambasting suggests, Mitch McConnell's Bizarro World claims about "permanent bank bailouts" in the Wall Street reform package are so transparently cynical that even Republicans like Bob Corker are left shaking their heads. Still, Republicans have another rhetorical device - the "Unopposable Utterance" - they can use at any time to gin up opposition to almost any policy. After all, who could be for the "Death Tax" or those horrible "Death Panels?"

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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