Why 'common sense' is so popular with politicians, at least in their rhetoric

But one politician’s common sense is another’s nonsense. 

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin (c.) leaves a meeting about his bid to be the next speaker of the House with moderate members of the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.

“Common sense.” The label that politicians apply to policies they’re trying to sell that aren’t automatically popular with the public or others in their party.

It’s a deliberately vague form of rebranding intended to make any idea seem like a safe, sensible no-brainer – and it’s a term you can expect to hear a lot more of if, as expected, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin becomes the new House speaker.

“We can show the country what a common-sense conservative agenda looks like,” Ryan told his colleagues last week in announcing he would run to succeed retiring Ohio Rep. John Boehner in the job that Ryan initially had spurned. In an earlier statement, he also said: “Make no mistake: I believe that the ideas and principles of results-driven, common-sense conservatism are the keys to a better tomorrow – a tomorrow in which all of God’s children will be better off than they are today.”

As innocuous as such statements might sound, they still have drawn criticism. Paul Mirengoff, writing on the conservative blog PowerLine, accused the current Ways and Means Committee chairman of falling “into the trap that enables liberalism. He wants to do big things. He can do no big thing that is genuinely conservative because, to date and probably for the foreseeable future, the Democrats stand steadfastly in the way.”

“Common sense” has long been a common Ryan term. In January, he praised the House’s passage of a bill aimed at easing the export of liquefied natural gas as “common-sense energy legislation.” While campaigning as Mitt Romney’s running mate in October 2012, he touted Romney’s record in blue-state Massachusetts: “This is the kind of climate and cooperation and common-sense reforms we need in Washington.” And in their 2010 book “Young Guns,” he and his friends/co-authors Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. Kevin McCarthy put their theme right on the back cover: “It’s time to move the country forward with a clear agenda based on common sense for the common good.”

“Common sense” also is enduringly popular with other lawmakers: In addition to being nonspecific, it invokes Thomas Paine’s historic manifesto of the same name. The Sunlight Foundation’s CapitolWords.org shows that its usage in floor debates has been steady over the last two decades, and split almost exactly evenly between the two parties. Its use soared during the first year of President Obama’s term, when Democrats were trying to push through a variety of bills that they said fit the description of common sense. Obama himself has talked wistfully of a “common-sense caucus” of Republicans who might be willing to bolt from their party to work with him.

But one politician’s common sense, of course, is another’s nonsense. One example is gun control, arguably the most prominent of Democratic political-marketing efforts. Obama and others in his party have invoked the common-sense label in attempting to draw a distinction from previous efforts to ban all popular weapons and instead move toward what they regard as more limited, pragmatic steps. But Republicans have scoffed at the idea, and remain adamantly opposed to any gun-control legislation.

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

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