February 15, 2007

Old habits die hard

You may recall that just a couple of weeks ago President Bush was congratulating the "Democrat majority" in his State of the Union address — deviating from the text on the teleprompter, which had "Democratic majority." This elicited a great deal of commentary about how the use of Democrat as an adjectival or attributive modifier is a long-standing slur in Republican circles. (Roger Shuy and Mark Liberman blogged about it in this space, as did the mysterious Mr. Verb here and here.) When Juan Williams confronted Bush about this usage in an NPR interview, the President responded by claiming ignorance (something he's quite good at doing):

Yeah. Well, that was an oversight then. I mean, I'm not trying to needle. ... I didn't even know I did it. ... So the idea that somehow I was trying to needle the Democrats, it's just – gosh, it's probably Texas. Who knows what it is. But I'm not that good at pronouncing words anyway, Juan.

By disingenuously laying the blame on Texan dialectal speech or his own clumsy idiolect, Bush conveniently ignored the long history of this usage of Democrat as a partisan jab. A few days later, Bush again attempted to defuse the issue by opening his speech at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference with a joke about his own disfluency:

The last time I looked at some of your faces, I was at the State of the Union, and I saw kind of a strange expression when I referred to something as the Democrat Party. Now, look, my diction isn't all that good. I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.

So now that the President is fully aware of his "oversight," how did he do in his Valentine's Day press conference? Bush showed just how penitent he is by using Democrat as a modifier not once, not twice, but three times.

Ironically enough, in all three cases he was making appeals to bipartisanship:

And I'd like to work with the Democrat leadership, as well as, obviously, my Republican folks, to get it done.

I got a letter the other day from a group of Republican and Democrat senators talking about the desire to work on health care.

And, therefore, I will argue vociferously the No Child Left Behind Act needs to be reauthorized, it's working, it's an important piece of legislation, and will reach out to Democrat members, as well as Republican members, to get this bill reauthorized.

Two possibilities spring to mind here. First, Bush might really be unaware that he's continuing to twist this particular discursive dagger, even with all the fuss over his State of the Union usage (which he himself acknowledged publicly on two occasions). It could be a verbal habit that he just can't shake. The second possibility is that his advisers have told him to continue using Democrat as a modifier whenever possible, perhaps as a dog whistle to members of the conservative base who might be wary about all of this bipartisan talk. The continued usage could bear the fingerprints of Karl Rove, who demonstrated in a recent interview with The Politico that the modifying use of Democrat is just fine with him:

I have, sitting on my desk, a letter to me from a Democrat member asking me to look into a specific issue.

Even if there's nothing particularly nefarious about Bush's inability (or unwillingness) to drop Democrat as a modifier, it's indicative of how deeply engrained this usage is in Republican political discourse. Apparently Bush doesn't see the point in consciously choosing to use Democratic rather than Democrat, even if it would constitute just the kind of bipartisan outreach he professes to desire. Will a reporter call him out on it this time? If so, prepare to hear the old ineptitude defense yet again.

[Mark Liberman notes that Bush did manage to use Democratic as a modifier once:

I was also very grateful for the reception I received at the Democratic retreat that I went to there in Virginia.

Mark writes, "So you could say that he was either 75% insulting, or 25% competent."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 15, 2007 01:02 AM