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Why 'it's just politics' is the ultimate political dodge

'It's just politics' is popular because it allows campaigns to dismiss all criticism as mere point-scoring by a political opponent and – for a time – appear to be above the political fray themselves.

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    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with people at a town hall meeting in North Las Vegas, Nev., on Aug. 18, 2015. Poll results suggest the inquiry into her use of a private e-mail account while serving as secretary of State may be taking a toll on her presidential campaign.
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“It’s just politics.” A politician’s blanket dismissal of any trouble befalling them by labeling their aggressors’ motivations as mere point-scoring.

“It’s just politics” has been, and always will be, popular because it plays on the public’s monumental disgust with, and distrust of, elected officials. Paul Stob, a communication studies professor at Vanderbilt University who examines political language, describes it as “a political maneuver that hinges upon the deprecation of politics.” He added, “It’s playing politics by seeming to remove oneself from the political fray.”

“In rhetorical studies, we often deal with a similar issue,” Professor Stob said. “When people say things like ‘rhetoric versus reality’ or ‘We want action, not rhetoric,’ they’re making a rhetorical move that hinges upon the deprecation of rhetoric itself. So ‘it’s just politics’ is a way of playing politics that seems to dismiss politics.”

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The expression long has been one of President Obama’s favorites. And recently, Hillary Clinton and her supporters have been playing the “it’s just politics” card to describe the controversy over her use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of State. That, of course, has enraged her conservative critics, who contend the strategy has enabled her and her husband to sweep far too many substantive things under the rug.

“Bill and Hillary Clinton have for years looked into the nearest camera and said, ‘It’s just politics,’ ’’ RedState.com editor-in-chief Erick Erickson complained. “Every attack from every direction has been deflected with that. Even now, as more and more information comes out about Hillary Clinton's email server, the standard Clinton talking point has returned: ‘It's just politics.’ ” But, Erickson added, “ ‘It's just politics’ does not work when the public realizes it is actually about national security.”

The phrase also was used recently when New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the likely next Senate Democratic leader, came out in opposition to the Iran nuclear arms deal. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski accused Schumer of making a purely political calculation, prompting conservative commentator Bill Kristol – no fan of Schumer’s, but also a vociferous critic of the Iran agreement – to retort, “You think it’s just politics? You don’t think Chuck Schumer in terms of his foreign policy views has problems with this deal?”

“It’s just politics” also can be used in a broader context, as a pox-on-both-your-houses dismissal of career elected officials. Witness Donald Trump’s surge to the top of the GOP heap by strafing them across the ideological span as incompetent, dumb, and ill-intentioned – in other words, just politicians.

At a focus group put on by Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz, Time reported, participants “railed against Washington politicians who hire consultants, and sang their admiration for the one presidential candidate who promises to go his own way.”

Christy Setzer, president of New Heights Communications and a veteran Democratic campaign operative, suggested Trump’s been strategically smart in lumping together all of his White House rivals as conventional politicians.

“Look, politics is a team sport like any other – your guy can do no wrong; the other guy is cheating, playing dirty and a loser to boot. Hillary’s email server or Jeb Bush’s ‘anchor babies’ are serious issues to their opponents, but ‘just politics’ to the maligned campaigns,” Setzer said. “Trump gets this better than most, and lucky for him, his supporters are only too happy to oblige in cheering on his every move, and dismissing the loser-dom of his rivals.”

Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said voters have good reason for tying together Republicans and Democrats.

“They pick up the newspapers or go on their computers every day and read fresh stories of government corruption and yet nothing is done to prosecute them,” he said. “They know there are two sets of rules and the elites get away with what the rest would go to jail for.... The American people know the fix is in and they don’t like it.”

But the “it’s just politics” dismissal of the Republican and Democratic fields only goes so far, as voters eventually will demand to hear more than just that sweeping criticism, predicted Christopher Hahn, a syndicated radio host and former aide to Schumer.

“I am not sold on Trump’s staying power,” Hahn said. “While his blunt talk seems to be winning over voters now, eventually people want to see concrete plans on how this candidate will improve their lives. Trump is big on bluster and small on specifics.”

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

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