Changing Rhetoric

January 08, 2008

In the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, several candidates quickly latched onto a new buzzword--change. Although Barack Obama rode into victory in Iowa on that word, other candidates suddenly started claiming it as their own in New Hampshire. A recent article by Dana Milbank addressed this issue. The piece was entitled "Rhetoric thievery rampant on the campaign trail." Here are a few highlights:

If Hillary Clinton borrowed any more from Barack Obama's campaign theme of "change" at her rally here, state troopers guarding the entrances would have been compelled to charge her with grand larceny.

... In the presidential race, Clinton has been the most flagrant shoplifter of others' campaign rhetoric. Last week, she cribbed verbatim three of Obama's slogans in a single phrase: "We are fired up and we are ready to go because we know America is ready for change."

But Clinton is hardly the only thief in a primary battle that is overrun with me-tooism. Last week's Iowa caucuses exacerbated the pilfering, as candidates purloined themes that seemed to have worked for their rivals. Obama has stolen Republican John McCain's "straight talk" theme and has made off with many phrases belonging to fellow Democrat John Edwards. And Republican Mitt Romney has been openly borrowing the "change" theme from Obama -- or is it from Clinton?

With so much word theft occurring on the campaign trail, the most famous confirmed plagiarist in the race, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Neil Kinnock, couldn't find an opening and had to drop out after his loss in Iowa last week.

Apparently, the theme thievery works. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a Clinton backer, recalled to The Washington Post's Paul Kane how George W. Bush in 2000 stole the mantle of change from McCain. "We all laughed when we saw 'Reformer With Results,' " Menendez said. "We said, 'You gotta be kidding me.' But it worked."

On Saturday, the Boston Globe caught Obama red-handed after the new Democratic front-runner stole words from Edwards. Obama announced that "we shouldn't just be respecting wealth in this country -- we should be respecting work," suspiciously similar to Edwards' line in 2004: "We're going to reward work, not just wealth."

... Obama has also been caught with his hand in the Clinton cookie jar. The Chicago Tribune pointed out that Obama's stock line from Martin Luther King Jr. about "the fierce urgency of now" was uttered by Clinton on Nov. 1, 10 days before Obama used it in a celebrated speech in Iowa.

But, measured by number of items stolen, Clinton seems to be more perpetrator than victim.
It seems that the sincerest form of flattery really is imitation. It is interesting to see how quickly people--especially politicians--will grab onto rhetoric that seems to be effective. We will have to see what buzzwords people start copying after tonight's results. This should serve as a reminder to us to make sure people are telling us what they really believe and not just what they think we want to hear.

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