Winter slow-walks in the halls of power

A new(ish) term of art for resistance that moves at a stately pace.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., accompanied by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member of the of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 17, 2017, to announce their request of the Republican majority to delay the confirmation vote on President Donald Trump's controversial nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, until the nominee turns over the thousands of requested emails from his time as attorney general of Oklahoma.

Winter isn’t always the best time of year to get regular exercise. But I keep seeing references to an activity apparently as well suited to the corridors of power in Washington as to the snow-slushy streets of Boston: the slow walk. 

In mid-January, for instance, the Washington Examiner ran a headline, “Democrats pledge to slow-walk Trump’s nomination votes.” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer had announced a plan “to drag out the confirmation process” for several cabinet nominees.

The Democrats “have little power to stop nominees from clearing with a simple majority vote in the GOP-led Senate,” the Examiner noted. “But they can drag out the process for weeks....”

Ah, but slow-walking is a winter sport for both parties. A recent New York Magazine piece suggested that the Republican leadership of Congress, which has not been united in its enthusiasm for investigating White House dealings with Russia, has also been promenading adagio

It cited writer at large Frank Rich asking rhetorically: “How long will Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and their peers continue to slow-walk or kill any investigations into this morass?”

And as reported by the Chicago Tribune, Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois predicted that Congress would “slow walk” any such investigation. 

Conservative columnist Charles Kraut­hammer recently referred to two tempos in advising the White House: “Slow-Walk the Executive Order Appeal, Fast-Walk Gorsuch Nomination,” as the National Review summarized his counsel in its headline. 

The National Review notwithstanding, the more familiar opposite of “slow walk” is “fast track.” But the underlying metaphor of steps forward along a path – always upward, let’s hope – is so ubiquitous in our language that we overlook it, even as the very literal sense of “steps” is alive and well. Think of all those Fitbit users, wondering whether they’ve taken their 10,000 steps for the day. 

The language maven William Safire surmised that “slow-walk,” in the sense of delay, has its roots in Tennessee, with its tradition of walking horses and racing. In a 1998 column, he cited the late Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee complaining about the Clinton White House: “We have been slow-walked and deferred and had objections every step of the way.” 

Slow-walking is less about an exercise of power than of resistance. Resist, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from the Latin resistere, “to make a stand against, oppose....” Or to withstand, we might say, if we wanted to stick with Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

Withstand, of course, does not mean the same as “to stand with,” as in “We stand with our neighbors after their great loss.” It’s a word in which with retains its original meaning of “against” – as in withhold and withdraw – and suggests a more successful pushback than resist

But I digress. Back to that slow walk we were taking: Slow-walkers are arguably conceding a need for some movement, even as they wish they could simply stand firm.

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