The 2012 Candidates’ Telling Verbal Tics

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We all have verbal tics, my friends (as John McCain might say). And with the proliferation of speeches, interviews and debates that campaigns entail, the verbal proclivities of politicians are bound to make themselves apparent in an election year. From Newt Gingrich’s pedantry to Mitt Romney’s waffling, here’s a breakdown of the 2012 candidates’ most telling linguistic crutches.

Newt Gingrich: frankly, fundamentally

Gingrich is an f-word man, of sorts. One never has to wait very long for him to announce that, frankly, he has a fundamentally sound grasp of things. Take these quips from last night’s debate in Iowa:

“The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial, far too powerful and now — and I think, frankly, arrogant in their misreading of the American people.”

“I was, frankly, thinking about proposing a commission to look at fertility clinics.”

“I’d begin the process of completing control of the border by January 1, 2014. Those steps would begin to fundamentally change the entire behavior towards getting control of legality in the United States.”

Such five-dollar adverbs couldn’t be more appropriate for a man who fancies himself a a master of recondite subjects. As one CNN analyst put it after the debate, Gingrich is as likely to seem impressive and intellectual as “highhanded.” (Admittedly, “grotesquely dictatorial” has a nice ring to it.) That means there is no more classic example of his tics in action than this:

“I frankly [would] keep [the decision] at the state level because as each new state becomes right to work, they send a signal to the remaining states: ‘Don’t be stupid.'”

Rick Perry: I would suggest to you, I’ll guarantee you

Note how long Perry’s go-to phrases are. Combine those syllables with his Southern drawl and you’ve got a man who is really buying himself some time to think. For example, after suggesting last night that members of Congress should work part-time, a moderator asked him how much should be shaved off the 151 days members clocked last year. His answer:

“I would suggest to you, maybe 140 days every other year, like we do in Texas.”

Here’s another good example of him stalling (before giving an evasive answer), after Christiane Amampour asked him whether there is too much or not enough religion in government.

“Well, I’d suggest to you that I can no more remove myself from my faith, than I can remove myself from the fact that I grew up in Paint Creek, Texas, the son of two tenant farmers.”

His tendency to “guarantee” is also a phrase that highlights his Texan roots; that’s a state where, stereotypically, a fella will guarantee another fella ’til the cows come home. Here, Perry is speaking about members of Congress profiting from their jobs.

“If you did that in the state of Texas you’d be investigated by the Travis County district attorney’s office. I’ll guarantee you.”

Frontier justice!

Rick Santorum: actually

If anyone would actually pay attention to poor Rick Santorum, he might minimize his use of this word. The way he throws it into sentences often implies, Well, if you had been listening to a darn thing I ever said or bothered to read up on my biography, you’d already know that ______. Thanks for nothing, lamestream media. Take these debate excerpts, the first from last night in a discussion about “activist” judges:

“I actually campaigned in Iowa against those justices. And I was the only one on this panel that did it, number one.”

“If you look at my record, I’m someone who’s actually accomplished a lot on big issues.”

“Yeah, I actually had proposed that we can phase out the ethanol subsidy.”

“I was in the United States [Senate] when it actually imposed sanctions on Iran because of their nuclear program.”

Unless he actually does well in the upcoming Iowa caucuses, we may be hearing less of this one.

Jon Huntsman: I’m here to tell you

Huntsman’s habitual lead-in could suggest an attention deprivation similar to Santorum’s (as in, “Hey, over here!”), but it’s certainly a classic rhetorical phrase meant to display confidence and even defiance.

“I’m here to tell you: I can get elected.”

“I’m here to tell you that what we did in Utah is going to be a perfect example of what we do now.”

“I’m here to tell you, we’re going to lead the charge in doing what must be done in addressing the two deficits we have. We have an economic deficit … and we have a trust deficit.”

The last two are both from last night’s debate. And the latter displays another classic Huntsman tic: his tendency to use the royal “we” instead of “I,” as in “we’re going to lead the charge.” In New York magazine, John Heilemann suggests that the “we-we-we instead of me-me-me” means “Huntsman simply finds it hard to talk about himself in the way that’s second nature for most national politicians.”

Mitt Romney: look, let me tell you, if you will

When Romney was the clear front-runner, he often employed look in the debates. That word is an assertive signal that says, “I’m going to say one more thing about this topic, and then we’re going to consider this case closed.” These are from late summer:

“Look, Tim [Pawlenty] has the right instincts, which is he recognizes that what this president has done has slowed the economy.”

“Look, we—we are a nation of immigrants.  We love legal immigration.”

“Look, I’m not going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food, all right?”

He’s used it noticeably less since others have taken turns topping him in the polls. But let me tell you and if you will are still Romney favorites. While Barack “Let me be clear” Obama’s tic suggests that his words are always getting twisted, Romney uses let me tell you to emphasize that he now truly holds a position in areas where he’s flip-flopped. He employed it liberally last night, defending stances on issues such as gay rights and abortion.

“Let me tell you: I—I want to make it very clear. I have been a champion of protecting traditional marriage.”

“My view is, let me tell you, protect — protect the sanctity of marriage; protect the sanctity of life.”

If you will is more likely to show up in a one-on-one interview when Romney doesn’t want to fully commit or fully take ownership of a phrase. It might seem humble on the surface, as in, “if you might wish to accept my imperfect phrasing.” But, as Geoffrey Pullum notes, if you will  can also “signal hedging about vocabulary choice—a momentary uncertainty about whether the adjacent expression is exactly the right form of words or not.” Romney has, for instance, taken a beating about his changing views on “amnesty,” so here he hedges:

“And so by saying, as Speaker Gingrich did, that he thinks at some point people should be entitled to stay here permanently, if you will, a form of amnesty, then I think that he encourages another wave of people coming in.”

Defending his Massachusetts healthcare plan, the one often compared to Obama’s, clearly also puts him on edge. Note that in the first example we get a double-whammy:

“And let me just tell you, I think our plan is working well. And perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it is saving lives. It is the ultimate pro-life effort, if you will, because people who otherwise could have lost their lives are now able to get the kind of care that they deserve.”

“[The difference between a state plan like this and a federal one is] the difference between a racehorse and a donkey, if you will, so — they both have four legs, but one works pretty well and the other’s not working and would not work at all.”

“[In Massachusetts there’s] no government insurance. No government option, if you will.”

Sure, it’s easy to get lost in analyzing verbal tics and, perhaps, over-assigning meaning to them. But a candidates’ speech may reveal just as much about them as spin political issues.