Newt Gingrich is back in contention for the Republican presidential nomination partly because he understands the power of words, the pervasiveness of amnesia, and the dark art of making them work together.
It's still hard to imagine Gingrich as president. He's likely to blow himself up before next November. But the scary thing for Democrats is that Gingrich grasps these subtextual forces better than they do. It makes him a less predictable and possibly more dangerous opponent than Mitt Romney in the general election.
Gingrich helped Republicans seize control of the House of Representatives in 1994 with the help of "key words" tested by pollster Frank Luntz, who designed the "Contract with America."
In 1990, Gingrich's political action committee, GOPAC, put out an audio cassette with advice for Republican candidates. Gingrich followed up with a famous memo to Republicans called "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control":
"As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates we have heard a plaintive plea: "˜I wish I could speak like Newt.' That takes years of practice. But, we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little."
Gingrich's list of "Optimistic, Positive Governing Words" included "common sense," "courage," "liberty," "strength" and "vision."
The list of what the congressman called "Contrasting Words" included "bosses," "greed," "lie," "pathetic" and, of course, "taxes."
An Orwellian approach
The party internalized Gingrich's message and for two decades has run linguistic circles around Democrats, turning inheritance taxes into "death taxes" and efforts to advise seniors on living wills into "death panels." When it comes to demonizing the other side, nothing works like the Grim Reaper.
As critic and law professor Stanley Fish has pointed out, Republicans are also expert at stealing phrases like "individual rights" and "color blind" from the civil-rights movement and using them to win arguments on racial issues.
I'm not suggesting that Democrats ape the Republicans' Orwellian approach and begin twisting words to imply the opposite of the truth, as Karl Rove did this week with an ad making it seem as if Elizabeth Warren favored bank bailouts that hurt the middle class. But the president could bring up his language game.
At a recent Bloomberg View lunch with David Axelrod of the Obama campaign, a group of journalists got a glimpse of the yawning language gap between the parties.
Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker pointed out that it was a Democrat in the Carter administration, Donna Shalala, who in 1979 first began calling Social Security and Medicare "entitlements" instead of "insurance," the term favored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Talk about a self-inflicted wound for Democrats. For all the years since, these programs have sounded like something for spoiled seniors.
When asked why the Obama administration continued to use the word, Axelrod didn't have an answer. Nor could he explain why Democrats keep using the arid and unconvincing word "infrastructure."
The day before, President Barack Obama had delivered an important speech in Kansas on the middle class where he at last laid out a progressive philosophy of governance. Linking his economic philosophy to Theodore Roosevelt, a great Republican president also once derided as a socialist, was smart politics.
But not smart enough. Unfortunately for Democrats, Obama is much better at sweet-sounding paragraphs than words and metaphors that linger in the mind. Shorn of such words, his speeches tend to evaporate quickly or be covered inaccurately.
In this case, many accounts called Obama's Kansas address "populist," which it was not. If he intended to evoke a populist from 100 years ago, he would have mentioned William Jennings Bryan -- not TR. And Roosevelt's speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in 1910 included the slogan "The New Nationalism"; Obama's in the same place in 2011 contained no slogan or frame or memorable line for an amnesiac public to hang on to.
Words are weapons
It's easy to say that sound bites and slogans won't fix the economy. But what is that sentence you just read? It's a sound bite we're likely to hear soon from Gingrich and other Republicans, who understand that in politics words are weapons. Used with cunning, they can quickly transform how voters view their candidates.
You might think Gingrich's long history of hypocrisies would do him in. But Americans are busy and often can't keep their own lives straight, much less hold politicians accountable for their behavior of many years earlier. Why would swing voters have longer memories of Gingrich's years as a scoundrel than Republicans do? Besides, shamelessness is a wonderful way to fog memory -- especially if matched with biting language that distracts voters from the real choices before them.
So it won't be easy for Obama to smash Gingrich in the mouth next fall for the long-ago sin of inventing modern smash- mouth politics. In that insult game, where Obama is betting on memory and Gingrich on amnesia, it would be no contest.
Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One." The opinions expressed are his own.)