Same Words, Different Meaning: The Bipartisanship Gap Between the GOP and Obama

Republicans concede common ground, but make difference a main point. Obama concedes difference, but makes common ground his main point.
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On Tuesday President Obama and Republican congressional leaders both emerged from the White House's long-awaited "Slurpee Summit" sounding, perhaps surprisingly, a similar tune.

After one of the more rancorous election cycles in memory where common ground was nothing short of nonexistent, both House Speaker-elect Boehner and the president seemed to agree on something: that the country has "two parties for a reason." But as with much else in Washington, what was going on under the surface was more than what met the eye -- or ear, in this case.

Looking at the language both men seemed to be sharing, it is evident that their meanings -- and the messages they were looking to send with such similar language -- couldn't have been more different. Mr. Boehner was implicitly offering a defense of partisan disagreement. His implied argument: "Yes, we're going to work together, but we have two parties for a reason, so don't expect us to go conceding on our principles." The Republican leadership believes that when principles and bipartisanship collide, it is principles that must win out.

President Obama, however, explained his "two parties for a reason" in precisely the opposite way. He used it to suggest that, despite real ideological differences, the day's meeting was civil, and that it offered hope they could put aside differences and overcome the Washington "hyperpartisanship" that's led to gridlock in the past. His implied argument: "Yes, there are two parties for a reason, but we need to look past that and work together."

The president was speaking to a more hopeful strain of political thought -- that through discussion and compromise, the best ideas will often rise to the top. (Not coincidentally, this language is very consistent with the language he used as a candidate in 2008. It is fairly distinct from the language he has used for much of his first two years in office, where partisanship has been more the rule than the exception.)

While the language used by both sides appears similar, the implications are very different: Republicans concede common ground, but make difference a main point. Obama concedes difference, but makes common ground his main point.

This disconnect is evident in the language of the two post-summit press conferences as well. For example, Mr. Boehner said, "Democrats and Republicans and the president understood what the American people had to say on election day pretty clearly." Note he's separating Republicans and Democrats from the president. And what do they recognize? That the Republicans won. It's a clear message to the Republican base: yes, we're talking to the President, but he's going to have to give up more than we will.

Contrast that with Obama saying of the meeting, "everyone in the room" understood the American people want to produce real gains, and that everyone has a "shared responsibility" to produce them. Obama used language that grouped everyone together.

Of course, there are perfectly justifiable strategic reasons for these rhetorical differences. Republicans believe the American people are behind them, and such self-assuredness was visible in their post-meeting press conference. Now it's their turn to say that elections have consequences, and they're evidently enjoying it. The president, on the defensive after his party's "shellacking," took an understandably humbler approach.

But regardless of motivations, these two rhetorical frames point to profoundly different bets on what the American people want to hear. Republicans are placing their money on Righteous Principle -- arguments that appeal to their base, which they seem to believe is expanding. President Obama is sticking with the horse he rode in on: appealing to moderates and independents with messages of inclusiveness.

Time will tell which is the better bet. But at this point the language tells us that when Republicans and Democrats work together, they'll be doing it separately. In other words, it's going to take more than a late-morning Slurpee run to 7-11 to fix what ails Washington.

Michael Maslansky is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a language strategy firm that uses in-depth research into how people respond to messaging to help clients communicate more credibly and effectively. He is also the author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics

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