9 overused political cliches reporters in WA are sick of hearing

Staff writerNovember 14, 2013 

The Washington state Legislative Building shown in a June 2013 file photo.

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian

Even Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee, known for being full of uniquely mish-mashed metaphors and oddball statements, falls back on a tired political phrases several times a speech once in a while.

Last night, while responding to the Machinists union's rejection of a contract extension with the Boeing Co., Inslee thanked the Legislature for passing an incentive package aimed at keeping Boeing's 777x plane in Washington. In the process, he employed a tried and true political catchphrase, thanking lawmakers for "getting down to brass tacks."

There they are again, those tacks.

As reporters we hear the same lines over and over. And the more times we hear the same turn of phrase, the less meaning it carries. (And — just a note — the less likely we are to quote it in a story.)

In talking with newsroom colleagues, not all of us even agree on the meaning of some commonly used political metaphors, further underlining how they can confuse rather than communicate.

Here are some of the political phrases that News Tribune and Olympian staffers would like to see retired. Starting with Inslee’s tacks.

1. “Getting down to brass tacks.”

Translation: diving into the nitty-gritty details of something or getting to the core of an issue. Normally in reference to a political deal being drafted between parties.

Like most political metaphors, “getting down to brass tacks” would seem to describe what a person is talking about, while providing very little in the way of specifics.

No one in our newsroom can recall using a brass tack for anything, ever. Even the Internet is confused on the origin of this idiom. (Upholstery, or fabric-measuring, perhaps?) Usually, the metaphorical brass tacks aren’t described in any amount of detail, which is convenient – though it seems very un-brass tack-like.

2. “It’s no silver bullet.”

Translation: This (legislation, plan, proposal, whatever) won’t solve every possible problem, or won’t solve a problem immediately.

We had a debate in our newsroom about whether this phrase references how to kill vampires or werewolves. (Conclusion: definitely werewolves). But if you are a politician venturing into werewolf-vampire territory, maybe you should just choose another — preferably less Twilight-y — phrase.

3. “We’re sharpening our pencils…”

Translation: trying to trim money from a budget, or brainstorm new ways to make something happen.

Sadly, the modern-day accounting equivalent of “retyping some numbers into Excel” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

4. “Putting boots on the ground”

Translation: Sending troops to the site of a war, or alternatively, building a road somewhere.

One of my newsroom colleagues said that this phrase, when used to describe sending troops into harm’s way, dehumanizes the people fighting our wars. “There are feet in those boots,” he said.

When the phrase is used to describe beginning work on a construction project, it makes a comparison between that action and the actions of military service men and women.

That may or not be appropriate when talking about building a sewer line — even if that sewer line is really, really important.

5. “Put some sideboards" on something

Translation: Add some additional regulations (“sideboards”) to a law or existing practice.

A favorite during the 2013 legislative session. Funny, I didn’t realize the political process involved hauling hay on a flatbed truck.

Or maybe someone is looking for a convenient spot to drop off a potluck item in a friend’s living room. I'm really not sure.

6."Move the needle" on an issue

Translation: make measurable progress.

I can't tell you how many times we heard this in Olympia this year in reference to improving the state's education system. The phrase would seem to apply more to polygraph machines or seismic measuring equipment than public policy.

It generally refers to getting measurable results, but simultaneously ducks stating what those results should be. Clever.

7."Bringing all the stakeholders together."

Or, as a News Tribune staffer quipped, “AKA, (bring together) all the stakeholders who can afford to hire lobbyists.”

8."At the end of the day…”

Because passing laws takes more than a day. More like “at the end of a 105-day session, plus two special sessions.” And even that may not bring an agreement on transportation taxes.

And this phrase is just plain overused, one TNT staffer said.

9."Come together in a bipartisan way.”

Another phrase that (arguably) comes out of a fantasy book, one News Tribune staffer said. He called this a commonly uttered statement “which no one believes or means.”

In the interest of clarity, I try to use party vote counts rather than simply describing something as "bipartisan."

That’s because I’m not sure whether the right-leaning Washington State Senate majority picking up a vote from one or two conservative Democrats means a bill is “bipartisan.” But providing vote counts lets readers decide for themselves. (Note: many bills do pass with the support of a majority of both parties.)

What other phrases are overused in politics that you think should be shelved for good?

Share your comments below or send me your thoughts on Twitter (@melissasantos1).

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