Some Quick Advice on Political Language

You can say it, Mr. President: the bad guys are called “Republicans.”

Barack Obama today, at a Chrysler plant that was saved by his administration’s intervention:

I want you to remember, though, that if some folks had their way, none of this would be happening.  This plant and your jobs might not exist.

Uh, Mr. President: those “some folks” are called Republicans. Republicans, Mr. President.  They are your political opponents.  You should remind the voters who those “some folks” are.

And no — that language isn’t inappropriate at an event like this.  There are 100 days to the election. Despite the wishes of your Chief of Staff, that’s an election it would be good for your party to win.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

12 thoughts on “Some Quick Advice on Political Language”

  1. I want you to remember that, without the intervention, those jobs would still exist. They'd simply be held by people working at different car companies, producing cars people actually wanted to buy.

    After all, put a company out of business, and the demand it was satisfying doesn't go away, it just gets satisfied by a different company in the market.

  2. Unfortunately that market demand and its attendant jobs would be filled by workers living in Japan or Europe.

  3. Funny, then, that the German firm I work for is shipping tools over from Germany to run in the US. Something about not trusting the reliability of Atlantic travel anymore, until Iceland settles down again in a decade or two.

  4. Newsflash: "Foreign" automakers create tons of U.S. jobs including at plants.

    "I want you to remember" who bought your vote with other people's money! I'm not against all federal stimulus/stability measures but the GM bailout was rotten.

  5. Brett, I think that would be true if the financial crisis had not existed. In that case the process of "creative destruction" would have been appropriate. But as I understand it, the idea behind the bailouts of GM and banks was that circumstances were extraordinary, and thus extraordinary measures were called for. In GM's case, if they were to have been allowed to fail, the destruction wouldn't have been "creative" at all – GM's assets represented a lot of value that would have vanished had everything been shifted to integrate into a different business.

    This is what I don't understand about a lot of the bailout rhetoric. It is often spoken of as if market conditions were normal. Thus, the government was either just giving away money to banks and the auto industry for no reason other than corruption, or that the government was embarking on a long-term plan to take over the entire banking and auto industry.

  6. More to the the point, he should have called out Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity by name, (to name a few). Conservatives rail best against actual people, like Pelosi, Obama and Reid, while my side prefers taking on abstractions, like parties, isms, movements and some folkses.

  7. My memory is that the rules require the Pres to reimburse for travel for political trips. Maybe I am wrong, but if that's right, saying "Republicans" could have been pretty expensive.

  8. Eli, the question wasn't whether GM was going to go under. It was which creditors were going to get stiffed, and whether the UAW in particular, a strong Democratic supporter, would have to renegotiate it's contracts.

    It wasn't GM being bailed out, it was the UAW. The purpose of the bailout was to save the UAW's contracts. Which actually hurts GM's financial health into the future.

  9. Brett, that's an interesting point. If one is inclined to oppose unions then the crisis could have been seen as a way to leverage their weakening. I'm reminded of Michelle Rhee's firing of over 200 teachers in the DC schools – an option entirely impossible under normal market conditions.

    On the other hand, if one believes that union contracts were fair, then emergency steps to stabilize the situation in order for them to be held, for those high salaries and pensions to be maintained, for the company to be saved, then a bailout would be justified. Let's not forget that the bailout was not free money. The long-term goal is for it to be repaid. What is in question is a sustainable business model.

    Although even if all pensions were cut and unions severely cut back I'm not sure how the companies could still have survived anyway. The business model going forward needs to be based on a stabilized economy, not one in full crisis. Just like in Rhee's case, a model in which 200 teachers are cut every year is unsustainable. Already, my understanding is that new UAW workers were being offered much less than older workers.

    So to summarize, I think opposition to the bailout was essentially an opposition to unions in general, the UAW in particular, in that they are seen as forcibly providing for themselves unfair contracts. That's fine. But if one holds the opposite view, that union contracts are fair, or at least justified, then the bailout becomes a worthy device to maintain workplace security during crisis.

  10. if one believes that union contracts were fair

    Which I would tend to believe of contracts negotiated at arms-length with major corporations and their legal counsel.

    What was not "fair" was the apparent understanding on the part of GM that it would be able to evade paying the pensions it promised by failing to fund them, and then either going belly-up or threatening to do so when the bill came due.

  11. Of all the possible illustrations you could have used, why did you have to pick the Chrysler bailout? It was stupid, and frankly it would have been much better, and excellent stimulus, to just hand the money directly to the then out of work laborers for a year or two of salary and stop wasting money on money-losing cars that people don't want.

    And worse, the American public knows it.

    Much better to tar the Republicans over unemployment benefit extensions or the bank bill or something.

  12. I don't think the union contracts were particularly "fair" or "unfair". I think they were as legally binding as GM's contracts with ALL it's debtors. Most of whom got royally screwed in order that the union's contracts could be held inviolate. The purpose of the bailout, IOW, was to overturn the normal balancing of creditor interests in a bankruptcy, and make sure a particular, politically favored creditor prevailed.

Comments are closed.