I see a lot of word abuse in my job. It’s not just the paid-by-the-word mentality of some writers (professional and not) that results in word salad that would give even sane editors (I’m told they exist) horrible nightmares. Nor is it the constant “verbing” of perfectly good nouns, or the affronts to even cursory grammar.
One of the things that bugs me the most is misappropriation of words to fit whatever political insult is being flung. Case in point: “Lame duck.”
Technically, a lame duck in politics is an office-holder between the time a successor is elected and when that successor is inaugurated and officially takes office.
As Esquire writer Charles P. Pierce’s recent commentary was headlined (riffing on Marco Rubio’s debate meltdown): “Let’s Dispel With This Fiction That President Obama Is a Lame Duck.”
“Let us be honest with our colloquialisms. The president will not be a ‘lame duck’ until after the election results are tallied in November. You cannot lame-duck him eight months before that. By attempting to do that, you are failing in your duty not only to the Constitution, but also to the catechism of political cliché, which is something up with which I will not put.”
I’m really gonna have to start reading this guy more. Even though he did just “verb” lame duck.
Originally, a lame duck was an 18th century investor in the London Stock Market unable to pay his debts. Abraham Lincoln supposedly started the American tradition of referring to has-been politicians as lame ducks, but it reportedly wasn’t until Calvin Coolidge that a president was called a lame duck.
PolitiFact talked to Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, who said, “The definition has evolved.” PolitiFact noted: “Decades ago, the lame-duck label was applied to a president after an election, but the term has changed over time to include any officeholder in his or her last term.”
Yes, definitions evolve over time, but in this instance and others, such a broadening of terms causes confusion when the audience doesn’t know what definition is being used … though it makes for great political talking points and epithets.
Megan Garber of the Atlantic is also bothered by the term:
“It is jargon-y. It is partisan. It is poorly descriptive. It is offensive to both humans and, we can reasonably assume, the entire waterfowl community.
“More than anything, though, ‘lame duck’ is often simply inaccurate: The golden years of a presidency can be, for better or for worse, intensely productive ones—not just despite a president’s ability to extricate himself from standard political pageantries, but because of it.”
If we do widen that lame-duck window to a year (and Barack Obama has been referred to as a lame duck since at least 2014), we find several presidents who weren’t exactly sitting on their butts, waiting for retirement. Some in retirement, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, still aren’t sitting on their butts. (And Carter’s last year was hardly idle, though mostly consumed with the Iran hostage crisis and the failed rescue attempt. Despite partisan fantasies, it was the Carter administration, not Ronald Reagan, that secured the release of the hostages through months of negotiation.)
Historians interviewed by Politico named several presidents with notable achievements in their last year in office. Among them were Teddy Roosevelt, who launched the Great White Fleet and made the Grand Canyon a national monument; James Madison and his successful chartering of the Second Bank of the United States; and Reagan, who managed to overcome earlier scandals such as Iran-Contra to have his nomination of Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court approved by a majority-Democrat Senate in an election year (yes, Kennedy was nominated in November of the previous year, but not approved till a few months later).
Along those lines, let’s get this out of the way: Rumors of the founding fathers having written a “lame duck” clause into the Constitution are false. The phrase in its political sense was not in use in the U.S. till long after the Constitution was written, and the supposed clause—Article III, Section IV—doesn’t even exist. Amendment 20 to the Constitution (sometimes referred to as the lame-duck amendment) also places no restrictions on appointments, simply setting the days that federal elected terms end, as well as what happens if the president-elect dies.
So, no, there is no constitutional barrier to any president naming a Supreme Court nominee in the final year of his or her term.
I’m sticking with the technical definition of lame duck, as an outgoing president generally can’t accomplish much in the short span between the election in November and his successor’s inauguration in January. As other supposed “lame ducks” have proven, the last year of a presidency can hardly be written off.
Though I know there are people who’d like to write off entire presidencies. Sorry, not happening. If I can’t overlook Shrub or Andrew Jackson, you can’t pretend Bill Clinton or Barack Obama were never president either.
Duh … last week, in discussing one of the late Antonin Scalia’s more colorful opinions, this one involving Indiana’s nudity law and people showing their genitals to each other at the Hoosier Dome, I said “Remind me never to visit the arena now known as the RCA Dome.”
Except … as a commenter (thanks, jnecess!) on the newspaper’s website noted, the RCA Dome was demolished in 2008.
Yep, I’m not exactly a rabid sports fan (haven’t been for years), and neglected to make absolutely sure the arena in question still existed, so mea culpa. I’ll let the furry one take care of the 40 lashes with a wet noodle. (He needs a new hobby; the blood-letting thing is starting to bore him, I think.)
I still really don’t want to see Hoosier genitalia, though.