Washington to English Dictionary for the Debt and Libya

What class warfare and kinetic military action really mean.

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The late great, William Safire wrote one of the best books ever about American politics. The book, Safire's Political Dictionary took phrases that the political class used routinely and tried to explain the jargon to the public.

It’s not easy to translate Washington into English but if anyone could have done it, it would have been Safire. Safire pulled off one of the best double plays in political history by working as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and later as a columnist for The New York Times. In fact, Safire wrote a speech for Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew that harshly attacked the media and coined the famous phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

If Safire were still with us, he would have a field day translating today’s beltway babble into English. To honor him, I will take a stab at a couple of phrases that I have heard in D.C. recently.

Class Warfare

Soon after President Obama gave his speech on the federal budget deficit Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans criticized the president for engaging in class warfare. The United States is supposed to be a nation without economic classes so the GOP figures use of the phrase class warfare is a good way to put Democrats on the defensive when they talk about tax equity.

Democrats may discuss class warfare but Republicans actually practice it when they give their best buddies, bankers and billionaires big tax breaks. For this reason, the GOP will attack anybody who calls for tax fairness for the middle class. When the Republicans accuse someone of waging class warfare, they are really saying that person has the audacity to ask why the GOP gives working families and seniors the shaft and billionaires and bankers big tax breaks. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Kinetic Military Action

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution clearly gives Congress not the president, the power to declare war. To get around this legal detail, presidents are very careful not to use the “w” word when they attack other countries.

A month ago after President Obama attacked Libya without congressional authorization, a pesky reporter asked Tom Donilon, the president’s national security adviser if President Obama had the constitutional authority to go to war against Libya without a congressional declaration. Donilon replied that there was nothing to worry about since the attack on Libya was not a war but rather a "kinetic military action. "

Donilon joins a long list of presidents and their advisers who have avoided using the “w” word that might cause them constitutional problems. In 1952, President Harry Truman sent American troops to fight a ‘police action” in Korea. When Richard Nixon attacked Cambodia, another troublesome reporter asked the president’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, about the invasion. Ziegler promptly corrected the misguided ink stained wretch and said the action against a sovereign nation was an “incursion” not an invasion. [Check out editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.]

To paraphrase Shakespeare, a pig by any other name smells as bad.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.
  • Check out pictures of the Libya revolution.
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