A conservatory of Ldotter blogs.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Semantics mean something. . .

. . .when it comes to leadership. A leader's choice of words has a profound effect on the way people perceive the chances for success in any mission. Ronald Reagan didn't exhort Mikhail Gorbachev to "consider allowing unfettered passage between the East and West." Instead, he demanded that he "tear down this wall!"

A leader's choice of words conveys his general attitude toward his mission; its importance as well as his overall belief in it. And, with all the conservative pundits and activists tussling over Mitt Romney's words during the interview in which he broached the issue of "timetables", private or otherwise, I think it's instructive to consider the way in which he approached the troop surge as a whole.

While looking around for examples in Romney's past of just how he uses language to illuminate his stance on the surge, I came upon a pretty good example of just why it is that John McCain, and other candidates, find Romney's posturing on the issue so objectionable.

A Bloomberg.com article from August 3, 2007 details the subtle shifts in both Romney's and Giuliani's approach to supporting the troop surge. Given the uncertainty of the time, there was a sense that a great deal rode on the candidates' positions with regard to their electoral fortunes as they related to the success, or failure, of the troop surge. I've yet to see anyone offer evidence that the other campaigns were less than happy to allow John McCain to bear the brunt of the political fallout should the surge prove to be anything other than a success. In fact, both Romney and Giuliani were already laying the groundwork for a potential escape route in the event of failure.

The clues to the groundwork lie in their choice of words in describing their support in the lead-up to the offensive. In April of 2007, when asked to give his appraisal, Romney stated that he felt that the surge had a "real chance" of success. I think it's fairly well understood that this choice of words is intended to convey a sense that, given the proper amount of effort and necessary support, there is reason to be optimistic about the prospect.

However, when asked again in July of that same year, Romney characterized the situation somewhat differently, saying, ``I don't give that a high probability, I give it a reasonable probability.'' A reasonably objective observer could conclude that this was intended to convey the sense that he had adopted a "wait and see" attitude, and that he wasn't entirely sold on it.

The question I would put to those who are so angry with McCain at having raised what Mark Levin called a "phony issue" is this: When a person seeks to project confidence in a mission, does he use the words "real chance" or "reasonable probability"? Which words would a general use to instill confidence in his troops?

If a candidate wants to boost morale among his supporters, does he tell them that they have a "real chance" to make a difference, or that there is a "reasonable possibility" that they might. Because, at the time Romney made his remarks, what our mission needed the most was the support of the folks back home. It would be difficult to blame someone for wondering whether or not it was worth the effort if there was only a "reasonable probability" of its success. And, when those words follow the expression of an openness to the possibility of withdrawal, under whatever circumstances, the likelihood of picking up support is severely diminished.

While Mitt Romney was searching for just the right semantics to shield him from the consequences of failure, John McCain decided to go on leading. It doesn't strike me as anywhere near "below the belt" to point that out to voters.

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