- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

My dad was a German immigrant who loved to tell jokes that sometimes got lost in translation. One of his favorites was about a politician in the “old country” who solicited votes by promising to build bridges. Not Barack Obama’s figurative kind, but literal infrastructure - iron and steel spans.

One day a local constituent protested: “But we don’t even have a river.” Without missing a beat, the politician responded, “Well, then I’ll build you one of those, too.” Growing up, I always thought the story was kind of corny or that it must have been funnier in the original language, but my dad always laughed harder than anyone when he told it. His hoots covered a multitude of sins in the comedy shtick.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language in campaign 2008 - particularly the Democrats’ political rhetoric. Their words should strike both fear and hope in the hearts of Republicans. Just like that German politician, the Democrats say a lot of things that sound balanced and sensible, recognizing that despite their liberal voting records, talking like center-right candidates wins elections.

Consider Hillary Clinton on health care. She began nearly every speech on her proposal by making three key points: First, it was not a government takeover of the system; second, it included no new bureaucracy; and third, if you like your health care plan, you can keep it. Sound different than scary HillaryCare of 1993? You bet. Mrs. Clinton learned some lessons over the past 15 years when it came to healthcare reform - or at least marketing it. Just as Americans hate Congress but love their congressman or think the economy is going in the wrong direction but say their own personal economic situation is not that bad, the 85 percent of Americans who have health care believe the broader system stinks but like their own coverage. And they do not, under any circumstances, want government to take over health care - particularly their own.

Americans like improvement on the margins. Mrs. Clinton figured that out - at least, rhetorically. In practice, her plan amounts to a major lurch toward a government-run system, but her description of it was non-threatening and soothing. That was the point.

“The political problem we had with Senator Clinton on health care is that her speeches on the topic could have been given by any Republican,” a Republican consultant told me.

Barack Obama exhibits the same rhetorical camouflage on taxes. Talk about building a river. He is poised to preside over a flood of new levies - the largest tax increase in American history, as a host of current policies snap back to higher rates after 2010. But you would never know it from reading his campaign material. His Web site includes language that would make that German politician blush. First, among the 20 or so policy topics listed on his Web site - including positions on education, the economy and healthcare - there is no category for “taxes.” This seems odd because I’ve heard him talk about the topic several times in his speeches. So I decided to dig a little deeper. I did find three items related to taxes under the “economy” section. One talked about a middle-class tax cut, and a second discusses cutting taxes for seniors. The third included a policy on tax reform. But no references to coming tax increases already scheduled in law.

The Democrats’ rhetoric should strike both hope and fear in the hearts of Republicans - hope because most Americans have not cashed in their center-right beliefs for a big-government, higher-tax ideology. But most voters don’t know the full implications of the Democrats’ agenda because they are only hearing “I’ll build you a river” kind of rhetoric from candidates like Mr. Obama. That’s pretty scary.

“I read a standard message testing poll the other day,” a conservative researcher told me last week. “It was one of those Candidate A says this and Candidate B says that. One was supposed to be Mr. Obama and the other one John McCain. I had to stop for a minute and say, OK, now which one is the Democrat?” But presidential candidates who win eventually must translate fuzzy words into concrete policy. And an Obama administration will build bridges to higher taxes and bigger government.

Gary Andres, who served in the first Bush administration, is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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