On Politics On PoliticsOn Politics
Analysis and perspective about what's happening in the political realm.

Verbal Impact

Someday I may write a book about the 100 most repeated mistakes in politics. Without question, one will be comparing any person, place, thing, action, or circumstance to the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, the Gestapo, or Nazi concentration camps.

At least once a year, a politician or group gets into hot water for making such a comparison. Although he apologized this week, no doubt Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would give anything to have used a metaphor different from the one he recently used to describe conditions and activities at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And no doubt someone else will have repeated the same mistake by this time next year.

As injudicious as Durbin's remarks were, however, the thought that he was trying to convey was correct. The characterization of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the FBI agent's report that Durbin was referring to--along with many other reports from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prison--is certainly contrary to American ideals. The actions of a very few military personnel, including their supervising officers and civilians overseeing such operations, are unworthy of the men and women who are fighting so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But if some nostalgic, Norman Rockwell picture of what America does, and should, stand for isn't enough, consider the Golden Rule for prisoners of war. We should treat our prisoners in a manner consistent with how we want and expect our own military servicemen and -women, if captured, to be treated. The fact is, if we mistreat the prisoners in our custody, we effectively give a green light to our adversaries, now and in the future, to treat imprisoned Americans in precisely the same way.

The Geneva Conventions are a two-way street; that's why we signed them and should obey them. Using legal niceties -- that the captives are not technically prisoners of war as an explanation for how we treat them -- is not going to help future imprisoned Americans. Given the number of civilian contractors, journalists, and Americans working for nongovernmental organizations in that part of the world, the distinction is one that we may not want to make.

Durbin has learned an important lesson: Language matters in politics. The validity of the point he was trying to make was completely obfuscated by his over-the-top rhetoric. Republicans are now turning their fire on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for allegedly dishonoring our troops by describing the war in Iraq as a "grotesque mistake." The simple fact is that in her floor statement, Pelosi specifically paid tribute to the troops for "their valor, for their patriotism, and for the sacrifices they are willing to make," and said, "Disagreement with the policies that sent our troops to Iraq, and which keep them in danger today, in no way diminishes the respect and admiration which we have for our troops."

Now, while it is true that Pelosi's criticism was of the decision to go to war, and the condemnation of her was taken out of the broader context of praise for the troops, the bottom line is that politicians, particularly party leaders, should expect to have their statements taken out of context, even when all the appropriate disclaimers are made.

Then there is Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who has landed in the frying pan himself by suggesting that Republicans had "never made an honest living," another example of the Democrats' rhetoric overshadowing the substance of their attacks.

Polls show rather vividly that Republicans have had a lousy year so far; they have taken so many hits they must be beginning to believe they are the Grand Old Pinata party. It's easy to understand why they are quick to seize on Democrats' missteps in order to shift the focus and anger away from themselves. Republicans are much more disciplined in this regard than are Democrats. But Democrats are contributing in kind to the Republican Party when they make injudicious statements or structure their statements in ways that leave themselves open to attack.

Certainly, GOP pollster Frank Luntz's numbers have their critics, but the important contribution that he has made to the Republican Party is explaining that there are right and wrong ways to word things, and that words matter. Democrats would do well to think about such advice as they decide what to say in the future.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.