Chief Justice Roberts lifts 'inartful' to new heights

'Inartful' – along with its linguistic cousins 'counterproductive' and 'I misspoke' – has long been a fixture in politics. But with the Supreme Court's majority decision preserving Obamacare, the term gains new luster in Washington's lexicon.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Jessica Ellis (r.) holds a sign that says 'yay 4 ACA,' as she and other supporters of the Affordable Care Act react with cheers as the opinion for health care is reported outside of the Supreme Court in Washington on Thursday.

Inartful: The polite political word for “dumb,” especially when an elected official and/or his or her spokespeople grope to explain something they said earlier.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion in the King v. Burwell case essentially preserving the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) shed new light on the art of “inartful.” Roberts wrote that the original law “contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting,” which he and five other justices said necessitated the court to step in and uphold the creation of the state exchanges that the law established.

But “inartful” – along with its linguistic cousins “counterproductive” and “I misspoke” – has long been a fixture in politics. The late language expert William Safire noted in 1985 that “artful” originally meant “adroit,” then evolved into being synonymous with crafty or wily. “Thus, with artful meaning ‘wily,’ inartful would mean ‘not wily’ and would be a compliment,” Mr. Safire wrote. However, to use it as another way of saying “I goofed” – as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo did at the time – “makes no sense,” Safire added. “Depending on his specific intent, he could have chosen insensitive, cruel, thoughtless or even impolitic.”

In 2008, Ben Smith, then of Politico, wrote that it “is becoming a bit of a favorite campaign word” after Barack Obama refused to rebuke Gen. Wesley Clark for saying that Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain’s military experience wasn’t relevant to the presidency. And conservatives jumped on Obama for being inartful in 2014 when the president said “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic militants.

More recently, Republican Scott Walker’s evasion of a British reporter’s question about whether he believed in evolution prompted this headline from Washington Post opinion columnist Richard Cohen’s castigation of the Wisconsin governor: “Walker’s Inartful Dodge in London.” Another Republican, Ben Carson, in walking back an earlier assertion endorsing the ownership of semi-automatic weapons for people who live “out in the country somewhere by yourself,” called that comment “perhaps a little inartful.”

Hillary Clinton also turned to the word in the aftermath of the furor she caused last year when she lamented that she and her husband were “dead broke” upon leaving the White House in 2001. “I shouldn’t have said the five or so words that I said, but my inartful use of those few words doesn’t change who I am, what I’ve stood for my entire life, what I stand for today,” Mrs. Clinton told PBS.

“Inartful” has been used sporadically in congressional debates over the last two decades, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s ever-helpful Democrats have deployed it slightly more often than Republicans.

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

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