Sticks and stones

Liberal name-callers have a new favorite catchphrase: The "Enron conservative."

Published May 7, 2002 9:16PM (EDT)

Though the Enron controversy has largely faded from the front pages, some liberal activists are doing their best to exploit the scandal in a novel way. Hoping to leverage the negative associations carried by the company's name -- corporate greed, questionable political favors, disappearing retirement savings for workers -- activists have coined the term "Enron conservatives" in an effort to discredit conservative policies. Though this phrase is just the latest in a long line of Enron-related rhetoric, it is especially notable because it is being so aggressively marketed as a potential campaign 2002 slogan by a single individual: Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future (CAF).

Campaign for America's Future is an influential liberal interest group that counts among its founders a number of prominent liberals, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich, Jesse Jackson and economist James K. Galbraith. (Disclosure: Andrew Stern, president of SEIU, is also a founding member of CAF; I am currently employed as a researcher for SEIU.) Its latest conference featured a similar lineup of heavy hitters, including House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. When Borosage speaks, he has the ear of the liberal establishment. Borosage has a history of pushing cheap associations between the Enron scandal and conservative policies. In a Jan. 30 article, he suggested that "the Republican House passed an Enron stimulus package," and he claimed that President Bush's energy package was an "Enron energy plan." The idea, as Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri put it, is that Enron is a shorthand way of suggesting that Bush "cooks the books, uses rosy economic scenarios and doesn't worry enough about the human side of the ledger ... It was so hard to explain it before. Now you can explain it."

"Enron conservatives," the latest variation on the Enron theme, was coined in early January by Salon columnist Arianna Huffington. Huffington suggested that "during his run for the White House, Bush fought long and hard to convince us that he was a new breed of conservative -- a compassionate conservative. But recent events make clear that he is actually the standard bearer of a far more coldhearted breed. Call them the Enron conservatives." Huffington continued with an explicit definition of this new bit of jargon: "Enron conservatives are people who use political money and connections as levers to free themselves of all accountability to laws, regulations and responsibility -- even to their own employees. Simply put, they are people who consistently, shamelessly and aggressively put their self-interest above the public interest." The juxtaposition of "compassionate conservative" and "Enron conservative" is rhetorical counterspin at its finest, breaking the association between conservatives and "compassion" and replacing it with the far more sinister "Enron."

Borosage used the new slogan in an article titled "Enron Conservatives" published in the Feb. 4 issue of the Nation. He picks up right where Huffington left off: "It is Enron's rise that lays bare the hypocrisy of modern conservatives -- call them Enron conservatives. Enron conservatives fly the flag of free markets but actually use political and financial clout to free themselves from accountability, rig the market and then use their position to ravage consumers, investors and employees. These are not the small-is-beautiful compassionate conservatives George Bush advertised in the election campaign ... Enron conservatives make the rules to benefit themselves."

He continues with a series of sound bites that, taken together, read like political talking points: "Enron conservatives prefer plunder to production," "Enron conservatives in Congress passed the President's tax cut," "The leading Enron conservative is W. himself," "Enron conservatives don't violate the rules; they change the rules to suit themselves" and "Enron conservatives don't see why corporate lawlessness should get in the way of government largesse." Clearly, he intends the catchphrase as a way of defining conservatives and attacking the policies they favor.

Borosage has publicized the term with zeal. In a March debate sponsored by the American Prospect, he repeated part of his Nation article almost word for word, claiming that "[t]he adherents to this ideology, let us call them Enron conservatives, are different than traditional Tory conservatives who believe in flag and family. They are different than compassionate conservatives who care about community or charity." Once again, Borosage is attempting to break the associations between conservatives and positive values such as "family" and "community." In his closing remarks, he further complained that "the Enron conservatives who are flying this banner of free markets are using political clout to create rules to rig the rules so they can profit," and called for "getting rid of the Enron conservatives in office."

With his latest use of the term, Borosage has broadened the rhetorical attack to include issues such as education that are completely unrelated to the Enron scandal. In an April 11 speech (16K PDF) to a conference sponsored by Campaign for America's Future he used the term 13 times. Framing current policy debates as "a choice between progressive reform and Enron conservatism," Borosage presented a number of false dichotomies designed to frame large social issues as "Enron conservatives" vs. liberal policy prescriptions. Asking his listeners to "put the case to the American people," Bosrosage suggested a number of slogans: "Invest in education or let Enron conservatives starve even the reforms they celebrated last year," "Launch a drive for energy independence ... or let Enron conservatives push their Big Oil energy plan," "Make worker rights and environmental protection central to our trade accords or let Enron conservatives foster a global race to the bottom" and "Political reform to get big money out of politics ... or let Enron conservatives continue a politics where private interests dominate our public life."

With the term "Enron conservatives," Borosage is articulating an aggressive liberal public relations strategy for the November elections that is remarkably similar to the one pioneered by Newt Gingrich's political action committee (GOPAC) in the early 1990s. GOPAC focus-tested individual words, then circulated memos advising congressional Republicans on word choice. Recommended words to provide maximum negative contrast included "destroy," "sick," "pathetic," "liberal," "waste," "corruption" and "greed." Positive contrast words included "opportunity," "moral," "courage," "principle," "dream" and "freedom." Many liberals were quick to criticize these tactics when Gingrich used them. Now at least some are openly embracing them. Hungry for more Spinsanity? Click here.

By Bryan Keefer

Bryan Keefer is the co-editor of Spinsanity.

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