Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Negative attacks surge from a deep bench with chopped-off data

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"Support for Kerry-Edwards Surges Across the Country" read a July press release from the US Democratic campaign headquarters. US President George W. Bush also likes the urgent verb; he told a veterans' convention in August of his plans to move troops to new locations outside Europe, "so they can surge quickly to deal with unexpected threats." This military usage has become a favorite at the Pentagon; Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in The Washington Post about troops "that can be `surged' in quickly."

The verb is rooted in the Latin surgere, "to rise"; its primary sense is "to billow suddenly and with great force, as in a great wave." In political lingo, this fast swelling of support fits in nicely with other metaphors of natural disaster, like avalanche, tidal wave and landslide.

A surge is not a bounce. In politics, a bounce is a rise in poll ratings after an event like a convention, which is usually followed by a decline; implicit in the description of a rise as a bounce is the expectation of its temporary nature; what bounces up must come down. A surge, however, can stay up, or even surge further. Thus, when the Bush ratings rose after the GOP's New York convention this year, the Republicans hailed it a surge while the Democrats dismissed it as a mere bounce.

Bounces and surges can both come as a result of negative attacks. Every right-thinking goo-goo (an 1890s derogation of self-proclaimed proponents of "good government") abhors negative attacks, which have surged in the 2004 presidential campaign, especially regarding the candidates' military service in the Vietnam era.

"Our present leadership," said Senator John Kerry, "has given us the old politics of false and simplistic negative attacks." The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, countered with "The president has been on the receiving end of more than $63 million in negative attacks."

"The media have made it a truism," writes Gerald Parshall of McLean, Virginia, "that undecided voters hate negative attacks. But when was the last time a politician made a positive attack on an opponent? And yet campaigners of every stripe persist in attaching the adjective `negative' to the word attack as if to distinguish `negative attacks' from some other kind."

He suspects that this serves as "a semiliterate intensifier in the same way that television episodes are never merely `new' but always `all new.'"

If elected (belay that -- no candidate stoops to the conditional these days). When I am elected Usage Emperor, I give you my solemn oath within 10 minutes after taking office (formerly "I promise") to banish all redundant negative attacks, replacing them with grammatically unassailable savage attacks, unprincipled attacks and sneaky attacks.


"You can see what kind of a deep bench the Republican Party has," said an NPR analyst about the parade of political celebrities during the GOP convention.

"We are now rushing to add new managers," Toyota's president, Fujio Cho, told a Michigan audience last month, "in sports terminology, you could say we have a short bench."

The depth and length of benches is a metaphor gaining momentum throughout the English-speaking world. I think it got to first base in baseball.

"A deep bench means you've got a lot of good substitute players who can come into the game," says my colleague Jay Schreiber in the New York Times sports department. "With talented backup players sitting on the bench in the dugout or on the sidelines, a team has a real safety net."

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