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By Bryan Warner
Published: Dec. 31, 2012
RALEIGH - With 2012 coming to a close, the Polictionary is back for a look at some of the notable words and phrases from the political year that was.
47 percent – Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was struggling to gain ground in the polls when in mid-September the liberal “Mother Jones” website released a video showing the former Massachusetts governor seemingly write off his chances of winning the vote of 47 percent of the electorate. The video may have been Romney’s ultimate gaffe in a gaffe-prone campaign, which ended on Nov. 6 with him winning, ironically, 47 percent of the popular vote.
Big Bird, binders and bayonets – President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney faced off in three nationally televised debates. But the nearly five hours of rhetorical sparring was alliteratively reduced to references to Romney’s plan on cutting funds to PBS, his boasting of aides giving him binders full of female candidates to join his gubernatorial cabinet and Obama’s comment about the U.S. military’s modernization.
cow pie of distortion – In one of the more vivid – and unappetizing – metaphors of the 2012 election, Obama told supporters in Iowa that Romney’s accusation that the president had ignited a “prairie fire of debt” was itself a “cow pie of distortion.”
Empty Chair, The – Oscar-winning actor/director Clint Eastwood was given a key speaking slot at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, taking the stage shortly before Romney would formally accept his party’s nomination. Eastwood stole the show and set the Twittersphere ablaze with an impromptu and surreal conversation with an empty chair, upon which sat an imaginary and foul-mouthed President Obama.
Etch-A-Sketch moment – In a prime example of the series of self-inflicted wounds suffered by the Romney campaign, advisor Eric Fehrnstrom was asked by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien if his candidate had moved too far to the right during the primary. Fehrnstrom replied that the transition from the primary to the general election campaign was like an Etch A Sketch, allowing them to “shake it up and restart all over again.” The comment quickly drew fire from Romney’s left and right, playing to the perception that he was something of a political shapeshifter, and led to a 30 percent spike in sales of the toy a week later.
fiscal cliff – Like a far less graceful Harry Houdini locking himself in chains and plunging into a tank of water, leave it to Congress to place themselves – and the nation’s still-fragile economy – in the precarious position of having to forge a last-minute compromise (because it seems that is the only kind of compromise they are capable of forging) in order to avoid steep tax increases and deep spending cuts that Congress itself had conceived in the first place and that could throw the country back into recession.
malarkey – Vice President Joe Biden has proven to be among the most quotable politicians over the past several years, sometimes to the chagrin of the Obama administration. His performance at the lone vice presidential debate this year saw Biden full of smiles, eye-rolls, headshakes and over-the-top laughter. The behavior seemed at times odd, but it was deemed effective in keeping challenger Paul Ryan on his heels and in rallying a somewhat deflated Democratic base. But Biden’s use of “malarkey” to dismiss Ryan’s attacks might have been the highlight of night, at once putting back into a circulation a word not widely used since the Coolidge administration while also leaving to the imagination what word Biden really wanted to let loose.
Mile-High Meltdown – Before Biden’s spirited, if polarizing, debate performance, Obama and Romney met in Denver for the first of their three face-to-face forums. Obama seemed desultory and uninspired against a more energized Romney, giving the Republican a much-needed injection of momentum and leaving some to call the president’s performance a “Mile-High Meltdown,” in reference to Obama’s stumble and Denver’s high altitude. Although the “meltdown” could have also referred to some apoplectic Obama supporters, including MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who seemed inconsolable after the debate.
mudball – Each election season brings out a cavalcade of grainy attack ads with ominous music and foreboding voiceovers. An army of consultants have turned the practice into something of an unsavory sport. North Carolina congressional candidate George Holding may have coined the perfect name for the attack-ad game when he accused a primary opponent of hitting him with a “mudball.” The year was indeed full of them.
nuke the moon – In 1958, during the rise of the Cold War and in the wake of the Soviet Union launching the Sputnik satellite, the U.S. government concocted “Project A-119,” a plan to flex American might in space by detonating a nuclear device on the moon. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed, and sending a man to the moon became the preferred choice over sending a bomb. But the program, revealed through a declassified report obtained by CNN this year, offers a phrase that we think could be seized upon by any candidate falling behind in the polls and desperate for a dramatic, if highly unorthodox, way to get back in the race. For example, having Clint Eastwood debate an empty chair on national television may have been an attempt to “nuke the moon,” although the move seemed to self-destruct.
pious baloney – Former U.S. House speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was for a time among the most brutally critical of Republican frontrunner Romney in the early months of 2012. During a January debate in New Hampshire, Romney claimed he would be a strong nominee because he had not spent years in Washington. Gingrich called that “pious baloney,” noting that Romney hadn’t spent time in Washington because he lost a 1994 race for the U.S. Senate and his 2008 run for the White House fizzled. At least pious baloney sounds a bit more palatable than a cow pie of distortion.
super-majority – Just as Democrats were celebrating four more years of the Obama administration, the political pendulum was swinging the opposite way in North Carolina where Pat McCrory was the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win an election in more than 20 years. And in the state legislature, Republicans increased their control by winning veto-proof, super-majorities in both chambers. To put the significance of the Republican wins this year into perspective, since the last time the GOP enjoyed such dominance of North Carolina’s government the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, indoor plumbing became commonplace, the nation fought two world wars, man walked on the moon and people could watch video of a sneezing panda cub on their mobile phone.
super PAC – In the wake of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, a new breed of political action committee arose – the so-called super PAC – allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions and most anyone else and spend that money to directly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. While these super PACS are prohibited from giving directly to the candidates themselves or coordinating with the campaigns, they are able to wage a sort of shadow campaign, often doing the dirty work of leveling nasty attacks against opponents. A pro-Romney super PAC accused Obama of killing the nation’s economy, while a pro-Obama super PAC implied that Romney was responsible for a woman’s tragic death. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, super PACs spent some $641 million in 2012.
vulture capitalist – In retrospect, Romney’s path to the Republican nomination may not have ever been in serious peril, but for several months his primary opponents did their best to derail his candidacy, while inadvertently tilling the ground for the Obama campaign’s attacks in the general election. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former congressman Newt Gingrich both launched a frontal assault against Romney’s time at the investment firm Bain Capital, with Perry calling Romney a “vulture capitalist.” Perry’s candidacy was soon a distant memory, but Romney never fully recovered from the bruising primary.
you didn’t build that – While Mitt Romney had the misfortune of racking up a series of gaffes this year, President Obama scored a few of his own. During a July speech in Virginia, Obama said, “If you've got a business – you didn't build that.” The Obama campaign insisted the “that” he referred to was public schools, roads and other infrastructure and their role in helping businesses thrive. But the president’s critics, including the Romney campaign, claimed the quote was an example of Obama’s hostility toward the private sector. The owner of Raleigh’s own Snoopy’s hot dog grill posted a sign rebuking the president and jumped into a national debate that polarized the electorate and electrified lovers of pronouns.