Deep in the corridors of power, hidden among the back rooms of Washington’s K Street, is the office of a gnomish guru, a consultant who specializes in spin control and sound bites. In a recent interview, I tried to drill down into the nature of his business. He likes to keep a low profile, so I will refer to him only as the cliché master.
Q: Do you prefer to work for Republicans or Democrats?
A: I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I’m an American. At the end of the day, we need to rise above our petty divisions, get under the hood, and work together for the people. So I want to elect mavericks who will solve gridlock by hammering out bipartisan compromises.
Q: Okay, let’s look at both sides of the aisle. As the fall campaign heats up, what would you advise Republicans to say?
A: This is the most important election of our lifetime. We can’t kick the can down the road anymore. We must get beyond the tax-and-spend ways of the past and make the hard choices.
Q: What are those hard choices? What do we have to cut?
A: Pork – and all other kinds of waste, fraud, and abuse. Remember: We have to do it for our children.
Q: And what should the Democrats say on the campaign trail?
A. We have a vision of hope and change, where everybody works hard and plays by the rules. We need to protect the American Dream by investing in national priorities.
Q: How can we afford those priorities?
A: By making the wealthiest pay their fair share. Remember: We have to do it for the children.
Q: So what will determine the outcome of the election?
A: It’s the economy, stupid. People vote with their pocketbooks. But it also depends on which side can control the narrative and rally its base. Turnout is key. What’s more, candidates have to connect with the voters on a gut level.
Q: Let’s look at the big picture. In politics, what is the key to success?
A: Ah, I see that you’re looking for a game changer. Well, I have to tell you that there are no silver bullets. In a riverboat gamble, sometimes you just have to double down. Life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. I’ve got the scars to prove it. But looking back, I’m pretty happy with the arc of my life. On my watch as a wordsmith, my work has always gone viral in the echo chamber.
Q: So you supply mixed metaphors along with clichés?
A. Certainly: I’m a 24/7, full-service, jack-of-all-trades. I am loaded with killer apps.
Q: You’ve alluded to technology. What changes has it brought?
A: Technology changes everything. It makes the world flatter and more global. It shrinks the earth and expands our universe. But there are challenges before us. It is absolutely essential that we make the Internet completely transparent. And we have to do everything in our power to protect privacy on the web. We have no choice but to stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of our freedom and individuality.
Q: I see that you throw in oxymorons with the clichés and mixed metaphors.
A: Yes, it’s a Zen thing. But when you throw a Hail Mary pass, you can hit a home run.
Q: Speaking of which, how do you employ the language of sports?
A: Sports terminology is especially useful in looking at the horse race. Remember that a presidential election is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a real slugfest that will leave both candidates bloodied by the last round. So it’s better to be on offense than defense. In other words, language is a real political football.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
A: It that a gotcha question? Just kidding. Seriously, the only poll that counts is the one that’s taken on Election Day. Only one candidate can win, and when that person takes the oath on January 20, he will face an uncertain future. The world is still a dangerous place. The Middle East is a cauldron and a billion Chinese are working overtime to leave us in the dust. And we must be alert to cyber-attacks. Meanwhile, the graying of the Baby Boomer generation threatens to inundate us with red ink.
But for all of that, the future lies before us. That’s why we have to think anew and rise above the tired old phrases of the past.
Q: But isn’t that phrase itself a …oh, I see.
A.: That’s why they call me the cliché master.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."