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Adjectives pigeonhole Dems, GOPers

Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the author of the new book "Going Nucular." This is adapted from a piece for NPR's "Fresh Air."

August 31, 2004

By their uniforms you shall know them.

The New York Times' Damien Cave begins an article on the Republican convention by saying "They are finally here: the Republican delegates in their rep ties." Daniel Peres, the editor of Details Magazine, complains: "I don't want to see a lot of bad Men's Warehouse suits and a lot of badly parted hair walking around my neighborhood." And New York magazine offers tips to women conventioneers on where to buy coordinated skirt suits and high-end hair spray.

Unfair or not, those dress stereotypes have a long history. In the "Checkers" speech that Richard Nixon gave during the 1952 campaign, he famously referred to his wife Pat's "respectable Republican cloth coat."

Of course people pigeonhole liberals, too, with their Volvos, lattes and Birkenstocks. But the Democratic Party in general gets a sartorial pass.

The picture of a Republican uniform mirrors a wider perception of the party's ideological uniformity. It's a difference that shows up in the words we use to describe the parties.

When the Republicans wanted to put a compassionate face on their party for the convention, they decided to feature speakers like Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg. That's the same strategy the Democrats adopted at their convention, appealing to swing voters with speakers like Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. But the Republicans tend to be called moderates, whereas the Democrats are called centrists.

People tend to locate Democrats relative to the broad political spectrum and Republicans relative to their party - a difference that may raise problems for Republicans this time around. When politicians are described in the press as centrists, the odds are around 4 to 1 they're Democrats. When they're described as moderates, the odds are 4 to 1 they're Republicans.

And "mainstream Republican" is three times more common than "mainstream Democrat" is.

"Moderate Republican" first became a catch-phrase during the 1964 election, when it implied a contrast with the "extremist" label that Democrats were trying to pin on Barry Goldwater and his supporters. But the phrase persisted even after conservative Republicanism became respectable in the Reagan era.

When Tom DeLay jokes about how many moderates the Republican Party has, he obviously isn't contrasting "moderates" with "radicals" or "extremists." Nowadays, being a "moderate Republican" mostly depends on your views on social issues or just your tone. Moderate Republicans are like other Republicans, but less intense about it.

The triumph of "moderate Republican" owes a lot to the near- disappearance of the phrase "liberal Republican," down 80 percent in the press since Goldwater's day. In part, that reflects the party's general drift to the right. But it's also because the polarization of political life has turned the L-word into an absolute rather than a relative term. Nowadays Republicans like Pataki and Bloomberg wouldn't own up to being a liberal anything.

Ever since the Reagan years, we've been defining Republicans relative to the party constellation and Democrats according to their distance from the political horizons.

That suggests a view of Republicans as defined around a dominant ideology. We have a word "Republicanism," after all, but there's no word "Democratism." For that matter, Republicans are far more likely to be described as "true believers" or as the "party faithful." People talk about the Republican Party as a movement, whereas the Democrats seem to be a confluence of currents with no discernible mainstream. As Will Rogers once said, "I belong to no organized party - I'm a Democrat."

Not that the Democrats aren't seen as standing for anything nowadays. "Compassionate conservatism" or no, words like "caring" and "fairness" are still more likely to come up in connection with Democrats. But that's a question of common attitudes and values rather than of a political program. Despite the right's efforts to make "Democrat" synonymous with "liberal," people don't associate the party with a dominant philosophical system.

Those differences are natural, given the Republicans' fabled party discipline and the Democrats' equally fabled fractiousness. But the perception of the Republicanism as an ideology may make it hard to persuade undecided voters that people like Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger are the real embodiments of the party's soul. Not with all those qualifying adjectives slung around their necks - and certainly not in those fabulous suits.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.