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'Breathtaking': It's IN as trash talk on Capitol Hill

In politics, 'breathtaking'  isn't necessarily a good thing. It's often deployed to connote wrongheaded actions on an epic scale, especially when invoked by Republicans.

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    US Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas (l.) speaks to an attendee, at the Iowa Agriculture Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, on March 7, 2015.
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Breathtaking. An increasingly common hyperbolic criticism of political opponents.

In everyday life, “breathtaking” usually describes something positive, such as majestic scenery or an entertainer’s show-stopping performance. Back in 1986, the group Berlin had a No. 1 hit with the love song “Take My Breath Away,” on the Top Gun soundtrack. But in politics, it’s often deployed in the opposite fashion, to connote wrongheaded actions on an epic scale.

The Sunlight Foundation’s “Capitol Words” project, which categorizes language spoken on the floors of the House and Senate from the Congressional Record, shows that “breathtaking” has picked up in use over the last five years, with Republicans employing it more often than Democrats.

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a hero of the tea party movement and a probable 2016 presidential candidate, is especially fond of the word. He routinely lambastes President Obama and his administration over what he calls a range of errors that should make anyone gasp. “There is a pattern of lawlessness in this administration that is breathtaking,” asserted Senator Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general, on Glenn Beck’s radio show last year. Asked to elaborate on exactly how Obama had broken the law, Cruz expounded on the chief executive’s recess appointments as well as provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Similarly, Cruz declared on Sean Hannity’s radio program that Obama’s overall disregard for the law not only “is breathtaking,” but “dangerous.” And Hannity himself, in criticizing House Republicans last week for passing a “clean” funding bill for the Homeland Security Department, instead of using the measure to block the president’s executive action on immigration, concluded: “Republican leadership has a breathtaking level of fear of being blamed for a government shutdown.” Earlier, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama warned Hannity that the executive action was “a breathtaking overreach of monumental proportions.”

Obama’s defenders, meanwhile, have used the word to complain about Republicans. “The scale of the Republican hypocrisy on the Ebola crisis is breathtaking,” Democratic political consultant Brad Bannon wrote in U.S. News & World Report last October about GOP criticisms of the appointment of Ron Klain as the leader of the administration’s efforts to fight the disease. And “Rachel Maddow Show” blogger Steve Benen said of Republicans seeking an Affordable Care Act alternative if the Supreme Court rules against the law: “It takes a breathtaking amount of chutzpah for Republicans to demand an ‘Obamacare Plan B’ from the president and his team in the first place.”

But breathtaking isn’t always a pejorative. Cruz described support for his fledgling presidential bid that way. “I’ve been incredibly encouraged by the support I’ve seen,” he said last Saturday outside the Iowa Agricultural Summit, The Hill reported. “The support from the grassroots, frankly, has been breathtaking, and the financial support we’ve received from Texas and all across the country.”

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their 'Speaking Politics' blog exclusively for Decoder Voices. 

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