During a get-to-know-you meeting with the new Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, last week, a veteran Washington journalist asked about possible bipartisan talks to deal with the growing cost of entitlements. "Would revenues be on the table?" he inquired. Paulson looked puzzled. Another journalist explained that the question was about tax increases. Would they be considered?
The questioner had used a word — "revenues" — drawn from the growing lexicon of liberalism. It is a language quite common now in Washington and in liberal political circles, and it's designed to substitute softer or neutral words for harsher ones with political implications. It is a language of euphemism and, at times, deception. Paulson, by the way, wisely declined to answer the question.
The most striking recent example is Democratic representative John Murtha's plan to "redeploy" American troops from Iraq. His idea, of course, is to pull all the troops out as soon as possible. But "redeploy" makes it sound like a tactical maneuver rather than a move to retreat, to give up, to cut and run. Other Democrats have adopted the word. Murtha, however, is sometimes more candid about what he has in mind, urging "immediate withdrawal" to Okinawa, more than 5,000 miles away from Iraq.
The classic substitute of a favorable word is "choice." No, it has nothing to do with school choice. For liberals, "choice" offers a detour around the touchy word "abortion" with its clear meaning that something is to be aborted or killed — in this case, an unborn child. Those who favor a right to abortion are "pro-choice" and their anti-abortion or pro-life opponents are "anti-choice." And the pro-abortion group once known as the National Abortion Rights Action League has become NARAL Pro-Choice America. NARAL is not an acronym, according to the group. The first "A" stands for nothing and certainly not for "abortion." In the same vein, on July 19, members of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America approved changing that group's name to the American Association for Justice. (What about Truth and the American Way?)
One thing liberals no longer favor is government "spending," particularly on domestic programs. Instead, they want government to "invest." This is what people do in their homes and in stocks and bonds. And for their investment, they get a return. Liberals would have you think that when government agencies spend on — whoops, invest in — domestic programs, the results are similar.
Liberals have also pulled a switch on what they call themselves. They've figured out that "liberal" is a pejorative word. In the minds of millions of Americans, it means woolly-headed thinking on every sort of issue. So liberals have morphed into "progressives." And many of their sympathizers in the media have embraced the name change. Would they do the same if conservatives wanted to call themselves, say, "traditionalists"? I suspect not.
At the local level, liberals often go by a different name. They are "activists." Again, the media have helped popularize that word. So the folks who protest plans to build a Wal-Mart in their town or suburb are "activists." The people who oppose a zoning change to allow a church to be built are "activists." What about those who don't want an abortion clinic in their town? They're still conservatives.
A few liberal euphemisms have embedded themselves firmly in the broad political vocabulary. Take "affirmative action." It sounds like a nice thing. In fact, it consists of quotas or racial preferences, things that most Americans don't think are so nice and for the most part oppose.
There's also a special set of words that apply to Israel, and they all suggest the same thing: the need for pressure by the United States to force Israel to make concessions to Palestinians or other Middle Eastern foes. Newsweek recently urged the United States to get "involved" in the Middle East. Others call for the president to be "engaged" there. An "evenhanded" policy toward the Middle East? That, too, means leaning on Israel.
One liberal word hasn't taken off yet. It's "lies," as in supposed untruths told by President Bush. One Bush "lie" was his saying that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. Bush thought it was true, but it turned out not to be. Does that make it a lie? Another Bush statement labeled a "lie" was his claim in his 2000 campaign to be "a uniter, not a divider." He believed that, too. So was it a lie? Liberals have failed to persuade very many of that.
The liberal transformation of political language won't be complete until a substitute is found for a word that drives liberals crazy. That word is "patriotism." On national security, liberals imagine they're being accused of being unpatriotic (in truth, they aren't). They have come up with an answer anyway. Dissent, they say, is the highest form of patriotism. Not quite. Dissent may not be unpatriotic, but it certainly isn't patriotism. Nice try, though.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes