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Planes, Boats, and Paris Hilton: Why Can’t Democrats Master the Politics of Synecdoche?

It’s a choice between “kids’ safety” and “tax breaks for corporate jets” according to President Obama’s clearest explanation of the budget showdown in a press conference last Wednesday. The Republicans’ staggering refusal to consider even the most minimal efforts to close tax loopholes—because it would cross the line of their blood-oath to tax lobbyist Grover Norquist—was boiled down to the tangible phrase, repeated six times, “corporate jets.”

The reaction, especially but not exclusively on the right, was disparaging. It was simultaneously “class warfare” and futile. Charles Krauthammer went on Fox to announce smugly, “I did the math on this. If you collect the corporate jet tax every year for the next 5,000 years, you will cover one year of the debt that Obama has run up.” Others pointed out that Obama had earlier supported the tax break (technically, accelerated depreciation for jet purchases) as a form of economic stimulus. National Journal compared it to the luxury tax on high-end boats enacted in a 1990 budget deal, which caused fat cats to postpone replacing their yachts until the tax was predictably repealed, but devastated the small companies that build and outfit boats.

But it’s not about corporate jets. It was never meant to be about corporate jets. It’s about a tax code riddled with subsidies for unproductive activities and that exacerbates unprecedented economic inequality. “Corporate jets” was a metaphor, folks. And a particular type of metaphor—synecdoche, a part that represents the whole.

THE “CORPORATE JETS” metaphor didn’t seem to work. Listeners heard the part, not the whole. This is not another in the litany of complaints about Obama’s rhetorical failures or his negotiating skills—it’s a standard-issue failure for Democrats that long precedes Obama’s arrival on the national stage. You can hear it in the language of Senators Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and others. Absorbing the high-priced advice of academic consultants like George Lakoff and Drew Westen, who market banalities dressed up in the glam clothing of linguistics and neuroscience, they learn that they should speak in powerful metaphors rather than broader policy abstractions. But consistently, they fail.

Remember, for example, in 2004 when John Kerry and other Democrats launched an attack on “the Benedict Arnolds”—companies that had moved their headquarters, typically to Bermuda, to minimize their U.S. taxes? The actual Benedicts were very few, but the phrase was meant to be heard as a metaphor for all companies that were moving jobs overseas. Or, more recently, the scheduled repeal of the estate tax was labeled “the Paris Hilton tax cut,” identifying it with the best-known and, on the televised and internet evidence, least productive of heiresses. It didn’t seem to have much impact on the politics of the estate tax, however, presumably because voters and members of Congress had already absorbed the Republicans’ less metaphorical, but false, claim that most of the estates taxed would be small farms and corner stores.

Republicans, for their part, seem to have less trouble with this rhetorical gambit. Springing from their mouths, tiny items like Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” easily become a metaphor for “congressional earmarks.” “Earmarks,” in turn, serve as a metaphor for all government spending. And they never forget to extend the point: Where Obama talked corporate jets, full stop, they always identify the Bridge to Nowhere, say, as one of hundreds, or thousands, of examples of government gone wild. Democrats are plainly looking for similar metaphors that, rather than discrediting government spending, viscerally reveal the outrages of tax expenditures.

But why do Democrats seem to have such a hard time with the politics of synecdoche? For one thing, they often prefer to keep their metaphors narrow. They don’t really want to embrace the full implications, even though they expect targeted voters to hear them. Kerry, for example, when pressed, blamed “overzealous speechwriters” for the phrase “Benedict Arnolds,” insisting that he meant only the handful of companies that had engaged in “corporate inversions” to Bermuda, which have little impact on jobs, and that he had no objection to outsourcing jobs generally.

Call it economic populism on the cheap. By narrowing in on a single sharp example—jets, Paris Hilton, Bermuda inversions—these metaphors let Democrats grab a bit of the pitchfork tone of populism, while still protecting their ability to fly up to the Hamptons over the weekend on a donor’s plane to assure their hedge-fund supporters that they certainly don’t mean them, the dear friends whose contributions to economic dynamism they so admire and respect.

Modified, limited populism is probably the worst of both worlds. And in so narrowing the scope of the argument, Democrats also misrepresent the substance of their policies, in self-destructive ways. Their metaphors make it sound like taxes are more of a penalty for the grossest extremes of fat-cat America, rather than obligations that all of us share, relative to our ability to contribute. The insistence that any tax increases should affect only households earning more than $250,000 is similar. It leads, predictably, to families with two incomes just edging over the quarter-million mark protesting that they aren’t really that rich and shouldn’t be punished.

But taxes aren’t punishment. They are our shared contribution to the cost of national defense, the social safety net, education, and a fairly regulated open market. If Obama wants to make a grand budget deal, as he seems to, he might try shelving the metaphors and just explaining in straightforward language the modest long-term sacrifices that all of us will have to make, including those of us who don’t own jets or who earn less than $250,000 but still owe more to this country than we’re asked to give.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.