New vocabulary staved off debt showdown, but to what end?

Last week Politico published an article by Doug Hattaway and Steve Pierce that highlighted the impact of changing rhetoric on the latest debt ceiling skirmish. If you missed that skirmish it may be because, as the authors suggest, proponents of increasing the U.S. debt capacity shifted away from references to debt “limits” and “ceilings” and towards the notion of “default” and its consequences. This shift presumably encouraged opponents of increasing the debt limit not to force another high-profile showdown. The authors put it this way:

debt crisis

People heard leaders from both sides of the aisle talking about the “debt,” “debt limit” and “debt ceiling.”

The repetition of that idea raised its importance in people’s minds. Psychological studies show that people ascribe greater importance to issues that sound familiar to us.

That’s why message discipline is so critical in political communication. Consistent repetition of an issue or idea keeps it on the public’s radar screen—and on the national agenda. And it’s why you don’t want to repeat your opponent’s message.

Democrats undermined their own position by talking too much about raising the debt limit—and not talking about the consequences of sending the country into default.

It goes without saying that, at Public Works, we believe words matter – a lot. But we also recognize and struggle with the reality that sometimes words that help achieve short-term gains do very little, or sometimes even harm, the longer term objective of really changing how Americans think and reason about public issues.

In this case it could be argued that shifting to talk of “default” and America as a responsible country that “pays its bills” achieved the short-term success of avoiding another showdown over the latest debt limit expiration. Unfortunately, it could also have reinforced stereotypes about government’s “reckless” and “wasteful” spending habits and the idea that, like households, it’s time for government to “live within its means.”

According to Hattaway and Pierce, the “switch in vocabulary” started a “whole new conversation.” Did it really? Is there anything fundamentally different today about how Americans think about public spending, deficits and debt? Sometimes seemingly “magic words” are actually like magic beans –they produce something impressive quickly but they may not ultimately be leading us where we want and need to go when it comes to truly changing public understanding of government’s role.

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