How 'train wreck' became a signature GOP slam

Since the 1990s, Republicans often invoke the term 'train wreck' to describe policies they oppose. But no one has used it as often in Congress as Sen. Ted Cruz.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas speaks during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action on Friday in Washington.

"Train wreck": The political term for an epic disaster. It’s effective because it’s punchy and connotes a chaotic mess that can’t easily be cleaned up.

During the 1990s, when usage of the phrase soared, “train wreck” most often surfaced in political circles to describe the 1995 disagreements between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans over the federal budget that led to a government shutdown. It was used again in that context two years ago in the spending squabble that led to another shutdown, sharply spiking that fall during congressional debates, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Capitol Words website.

Increasingly, though, the use of “train wreck” has expanded well beyond budget battles. Soon-to-be-former House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans made it their signature phrase in describing the problems plaguing the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). “Tried signing up for #Obamacare today. How’d it go? Hint: #trainwreck,” Boehner tweeted in November 2013.

More recently, it’s come up in a variety of other contexts. It’s probably a coincidence that that’s happened in conjunction with the hit Amy Schumer romantic comedy of the same time, but it certainly hasn’t hurt. Republicans regularly have applied it to President Obama’s controversial nuclear arms deal with Iran. “I think it’s going to be a train wreck, and he’s not going to want to claim it down the road,” former Vice President Dick Cheney predicted earlier this month. “He’ll have to find a way to blame somebody else.” Even the much more measured CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria felt the same way.

It also is coming up often with Donald Trump. In the Washington Post, Republican blogger Jennifer Rubin summarized the strategy among GOP establishment campaign veterans toward dealing with the bombastic billionaire: “You gather the data on Trump’s problematic views and rhetoric, you use earned media to blast away one issue at a time and you dump rounds of ads to remind voters he’s a Democrat at heart and would be a train wreck for the GOP.” And in Mother Jones, blogger Kevin Drum said last month: “A ‘friend’ of mine forced me to read the transcript of Sean Hannity’s interview with Donald Trump earlier this week, and it was fascinating in a train wreck kind of way.”

The Capitol Words website shows that of the top 10 users of the phrase in Congress, all but one are Republicans. And the leading user, far and away, is Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. In addition to Obamacare, the fiery presidential candidate has hauled it out to describe “the balance sheet of our federal government.” Along the way, Cruz himself has been criticized for being a train wreck – from everyone from Republican MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to Ralph Nader.

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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