WASHINGTON – One can’t go very far in political debate these days without stumbling upon some reference to "the mainstream media” or "patriotism" or “activist judges” as well as other words and phrases that are so catchy and useful that they are typically ruined by overuse.
Political veterans say the same goes for political labels like “liberal,” “conservative” and “progressive” – leading some to question whether they continue to be personal political identifiers, rhetorical weapons or both.
Take the expression “nuclear option.” Though it remains a point of contention over who employed it first, the national-security-turned-political-rallying cry has been pounded as a term to describe the not-yet-used Republican tactic to shut down future Democratic filibusters against federal judge nominees.
The phrase became so volcanic and negative that Republicans attempted to rehabilitate it into a “constitutional option” with little success, said Chuck Muth (search), president of Washington, D.C.-based think tank Citizen Outreach.
“It made the Republicans look silly. Once a word has been put into the lexicon and is cemented in the public mind, you can’t undo it,” he said. “It’s too late, you can’t get the genie back into the bottle.”
Now, the phrase is starting to pop up elsewhere to describe other extreme remedies. Editors at the Los Angeles Times recently topped an op-ed questioning the further need for the Public Broadcasting Service with the headline: “There’s a ‘nuclear option’ for PBS' woes as well.”
“It reminds me of ‘mother of all battles,’” said Larry Sabato (search), director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, referring to the Saddam Hussein-uttered expression that emerged out of the first Persian Gulf War more than 15 years ago. “That became a stereotypical and hackneyed phrase until it was blessedly dropped.”
Sabato adds to his list of tired expressions former President Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century” and President George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”
The label "patriotic" has also become a political tool, offering widely different meanings to those who wish to use it. One could be patriotic defending the war in Iraq and boycotting french fries. Another person is patriotic by opposing the war and questioning the USA Patriot Act (search).
Another phrase that sounds good on paper, but which critics say is devoid of any real meaning is the term “activist judges,” typically used by conservatives to describe liberal judges they accuse of using the bench to further personal agendas.
Scholars have dated the term back decades, though with the country’s increasingly partisan climate, it has found resurgence in political discourse, observers say.
"There is no such thing as an activist judge,” Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano told FOXNews.com. "An activist judge is one whose ruling you disagree with. And if you agree with what the judge has done, you call them heroic and intelligent and honest. If you disagree with them, you call them activists."
Napolitano said the definition of "activist judge" differs from the right to the left side of the political spectrum.
"To conservatives, activist judges are those who permit or compel activity in which the opinion of the conservatives can only be done in the legislative branch," he said. "To liberals, activist judges are judges who prevent the government from doing things that the Legislature wants to do."
The definitions and connotations on the political labels themselves also can vary, say Washington watchers. “Conservative” was once a dirty word, but thanks to the late President Reagan and the 1990s Republican revolution, it’s now worn with pride.
But Muth said the meaning of "conservative" is even disputed among conservatives. In recent times, he said, conservative has come to mean only “social conservative.”
“It used to mean (former Senator) Barry Goldwater (search) constitutional conservative, but now it almost always refers to social conservatives, as though people who are not Christian conservatives or social conservatives aren’t real conservatives,” said Muth, who considers himself a limited government, constitutional conservative.
“I don’t think they have a new label for constitutional conservative,” he said.
The term “liberal,” once a badge of honor, has been used as a put down in recent decades, so much so that liberal-leaning politicos these days have adopted the term “progressive."
“When someone says they’re ‘progressive’ to me, I immediately translate that to ‘liberal,’” said Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, pointing out that the word “liberal” is now used to attack people more often than the conservative label.
Conversely, while some phrases have adjustable meanings, others are so deeply ingrained that to use them to amplify or emphasize a political statement often ends up sounding hyperbolic and inappropriate. Among those words are “Nazi” or “Taliban” to describe a political opponent, or the increasing use of “ground zero” to depict any pivotal moment in a debate or situation.
Muth pointed out that the recent controversial description by Amnesty International of the Guantanamo Bay (search) detainee camp as a "gulag,” the infamous Russian prison camps, damaged efforts to point to alleged human rights abuses there.
“It detracted from their credibility,” he said.