Will President Bush put the "-ic” back in “Democratic”?
That was the hot topic around Washington on Monday after the president was asked why, during his State of the Union address last week, he referred to Congress’ new “Democrat majority.”
“That was an oversight,” Bush said in an interview Monday with National Public Radio. “I’m not trying to needle.... I didn’t even know I did it.”
The issue of whether it is a slur to refer to the Democratic Party without the "-ic” has become an irritant. It comes at a time when Democrats and Republicans are trying to figure out whether they can work together, after years of fierce partisanship in the nation’s capital.
Some Democrats said the president’s usage in the speech -- even though his prepared text included the "-ic” -- sent the wrong message.
“It’s a long-standing intentional partisan political slight,” said Daniel Weiss, chief of staff to Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). “It’s kind of like flashing colors in a gang. It’s code. It says, ‘I’m one of you, I’m a right-wing conservative.’ ”
And experts on political locution say it’s a deliberate, if ungrammatical, linguistic strategy.
“The word ‘democratic’ has such positive emotional valence ... so they politicize it to use it as a term to describe a group of political rivals,” said Roderick P. Hart, a professor of communications and government at the University of Texas in Austin.
“Democrat Party” is not common usage in Texas, Hart said, noting that the only people he had heard use it were “sitting Republican legislators.”
For the president’s part, when told the term grates on Democrats, he pleaded ignorance. “I didn’t mean to be putting fingernails on the board. I meant to be saying, Why don’t we show the American people we can actually work together?” Bush told NPR.
For her part, the government’s most powerful Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, has brushed off the controversy. “She takes the president at his word that it was an oversight,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.
The use of the term “Democrat Party” goes back decades. One explanation sometimes offered is that Republicans began to use it to hint that corrupt Democrats were not terribly “democratic” and had no right to use that word to describe themselves. Others say it was adopted because it sounds annoying and echoes the word “bureaucrat,” with its negative connotations.
Whatever the initial impulse or rationale, the term became controversial as far back as the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) famously used it to deride Democrats during his hearings investigating whether Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government. During the 1956 Republican convention, the usage was so common that it prompted the New York Times to report that dropping the "-ic” had become official party policy.
“ ‘Democratic’ as an adjective is not descriptive of the party as it exists today,” GOP spokesman L. Richard Guylay explained in that report, referring to allegations of vote-fixing by the Democratic Party’s political machine in large cities. “I can’t consider the party of the Pendergasts or Tammany Hall as a democratic party.”
In 1957, writing about the phenomenon in American Speech, the quarterly journal of the American Dialect Society, scholar Ignace Feuerlicht wrote: “It will be interesting to see whether ‘Democrat Party’ will stay with us or go out of existence again or be revived and revitalized at intervals just before successive national elections.”
Feuerlicht seems to have been prescient: A search of a database of presidential speeches and remarks shows that use of the term has increased during election seasons and has been aimed primarily at partisan audiences.
President Reagan used it more in 1984, the year of his reelection campaign, than at any other time in his presidency. In the case of President Bush, the term shows up in his remarks more in 2004 and 2006 -- both election years -- than during the rest of his time in office.
In fact, Bush’s usage of the term increased dramatically last year; according to the American Presidency Project, based at UC Santa Barbara, the president was recorded using the term 22 times in 2006 -- more than in the previous five years of his presidency combined.
The term also is commonly used by other Republican leaders. On Monday afternoon, the office of the top GOP leader in the House, Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, issued a news release asking, “What is the Democrat strategy in Iraq?”
“It sounds illiterate to me,” said the University of Texas’ Hart. “It’s a noun used to modify a noun, and everyone knows you use an adjective to modify a noun.”
Some Democrats doubt that the president is truly unaware of the pejorative tone of the term, but others acknowledged that it might have become such common parlance among Republican politicians that Bush used it without understanding its origin or undertones.
“It’s like ‘nuclear.’ I just don’t think he understands what he’s saying,” said one Democratic aide.
That was another defense Bush himself offered during the NPR interview.
“Gosh, it’s probably Texas. Who knows what it is?” he said. “But I’m not that good at pronouncing words anyway.”