Bush-era rhetoric pervades politics

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The Bush era is, at long last, drawing to a close. Just as one surveys the ruination of his home after emerging from a tornado shelter, so must Americans look at the mess left to us by the Bush administration. The 43rd president has left the country with billions of dollars in federal debt, two unwinnable wars, heavily eroded privacy rights, and last week, a failed bailout plan to alleviate the nation’s worst economic crisis in decades. These transgressions, however, may be rectified with the right economic, military, and policy solutions.

What won’t go away is Bush’s recognizable rhetoric, which has pervaded not only his allies and Republican compatriots (however few he has left), but even his opponents. Just like we hear today from both of the presidential nominees, Bush promised in 2000 that with his outsider status as a governor (sound familiar?), he would be a breath of fresh air in Washington. And he was right. His words have inexorably changed political discourse inside and outside the Beltway.

Scholars and political pundits alike have begun analyzing the “Bush Doctrine” — a melange of policies that employs democracy, oppose terror, and sanction preemptive attacks — but the damage starts with the pollution of simple phrases that a presidential nominee in the nineties might not have given a second thought. “Resolve,” “terror,” “stay the course,” “embolden,” and “support the troops” — these are the linchpins of a doctrine characterized by obstinance, closed-mindedness, and fear.

The ability to make a decision and weather the consequences could be a strong indicator of courage. Instead, “stay the course” became an unassailable defense for the War on Terror during Bush’s terms. Despite misinformation, needless loss of life, and persistent calls for peace from the American people, those who wanted an end to the war lacked “resolve”; they were deemed cowards and seen as in support of terror and, as such, were tantamount to traitors.

Imagine my surprise when I was listening to Barack Obama speaking only a week ago at the University of Miami, for even he comes replete with a rhetorical closet full of his own zipwords — “hope,” “change,” “community,” and, more recently, “main street” — saying, “It’s time for resolve. It’s time for leadership.”

There it was. A word Obama unfortunately borrowed from a defunct doctrine. While it was a relatively innocuous use of the word “leadership,” its hard to stomach from a candidate who has championed open-mindedness and brought dozens of experts to the table as advisers.

The debates Friday night were rife with Bush logic. While deriding Bush policies, both candidates borrowed his words. John McCain called for a strategic gathering of democracies to deal with Pakistan, and called this group “our friends,” hearkening back to the same obstinate with-us-or-against-us ideology that defines Bush’s approach to foreign policy. Obama asserted that we need to avoid action in the Middle East that will “embolden” our enemy Al-Qaeda. In 2005, McCain said that the way to win in Iraq was to “stay the course,” using a Bush phrase to recast a poorly executed, trillion-dollar war as a an exercise in patience and fortitude.

McCain has since changed his wording, but not his stance.

Similarly, the term “flip-flopper” was used to defame John Kerry in the 2004 election. In the same way, the the use of “our friends” sets up an “us/them” mentality and “resolve” is used as a mask for stubbornness, “flip-flop” is used to deride politicians who change their views, punishing them for the crucial process of introspection and reflection. It was used in the 2008 presidential primaries on Democrats and Republicans alike, making anyone who changed their stance or voted in conflicting ways seem untrustworthy and inconsistent.

Beyond argument, the Bush administration’s policies set the tone for the next few decades at the very least. Still, successive presidents will take new approaches and the Bush doctrine will be pushed out of the way over the course of time.

What is more worrisome to me is the pervasiveness, even among Bush’s opponents, of his rhetoric. There is no telling when the words that President Bush has polluted will shed their new connotations. When will another political pundit, news anchor, or presidential candidate be able to use the word “resolve” or turn the phrase “stay the course” without conjuring the specter of Bush’s unyielding support of eight years of failed policies?