Winning Words

A single word can start a whole new conversation.

When Treasury Secretary Jack Lew gave notice that the federal government would hit the debt ceiling in February 2014, the response from congressional Republicans—who twice took the nation to the brink of default in previous years—was decidedly muted.

The official line? “We believe that defaulting on our debt is the wrong thing,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “We don’t want to do that.” On Tuesday, the House duly voted to raise the debt limit without conditions, sending the action over to the Senate.

This move represented a 180-degree turn from the GOP’s previous strategy of trying to extract concessions from Democrats by threatening to send the country into economic chaos.

Why such a stark softening of the party line? Republicans’ retreat from the debt-limit battlefield, which they entered so boldly in the spring of 2011 and 2013, began with a shift in the Democrats’ rhetorical strategy. A simple turn of phrase turned the tables on the GOP.

The short history of debt-limit brinksmanship offers a useful lesson in the power of a word to reframe a national debate and drive public opinion in a new direction.

When Republicans first played the debt-limit card in 2011 to force budget concessions from Democrats, the GOP held the rhetorical upper hand. The dialogue was framed in terms of the policy question at hand: Should the national debt limit be raised, so that the Treasury could borrow more money to pay outstanding bills?

In a Pew Research poll released in May of that year, 48 percent of respondents opposed raising the debt limit. Only 35 percent feared forcing the government into default and hurting the economy.

Here’s why: When politicians say “raise the debt limit,” people hear “run up the credit card.” It’s not an accurate analogy—Congress has already spent the money—but it made raising the debt limit a non-starter for many people.

An analysis we conducted of the words used by Republicans and Democrats in the national debate during the early days of the 2011 standoff showed both sides using similar language, as revealed in a “word frequency” chart of sound bites by national leaders in news coverage.

People heard leaders from both sides of the aisle talking about the “debt,” “debt limit” and “debt ceiling.”

The repetition of that idea raised its importance in people’s minds. Psychological studies show that people ascribe greater importance to issues that sound familiar to them.

That’s why message discipline is so critical in political communication. Consistent repetition of an issue or idea keeps it on the public’s radar screen—and on the national agenda. And it’s why you don’t want to repeat your opponent’s message.

Democrats undermined their own position by talking too much about raising the debt limit—and not talking about the consequences of sending the country into default. A word frequency analysis revealed that the word “default” didn’t even show up in the debate during the first round of this fight in 2011.

We shared this linguistic analysis with top Democrats and recommended a simple, but critical, change in their message: Stop talking about the “debt limit.” Start the conversation with the word “default.”

It was a straightforward switch in vocabulary, but it started a whole new conversation. When high-profile messengers in the Obama administration and Congress started talking about the danger of “default,” the prominence of that idea quickly increased in news coverage. Commentators began discussing it more, and the theme was amplified in social media.

Democrats also dialed up the emotional resonance of the message by saying that a default could cause an economic “catastrophe.” Emotion works with cognition in the brain to help us with attention, retention and motivation. A message must create an emotional reaction for people to notice it, much less remember it.

Within weeks of Democrats adopting this new tack, the polls began to shift. A Pew survey in July 2011 showed the percentage of respondents concerned about default had increased by seven points, while opposition to raising the debt limit had decreased by one.

That was the beginning of the end for debt-limit brinksmanship. When Pew polled voters during the last dustup over default in October 2013, 51 percent said it was “absolutely essential that the federal debt limit be raised to avoid an economic crisis.” Only 36 percent clung to the Republicans’ previous party line against raising it.

With a word, Democrats performed a masterful bit of political jujitsu. And they stuck to their guns, refusing to negotiate while the GOP held the economy hostage. More important, the new D-word helped avoid another blow to America’s credit rating and economic recovery, and it made Republicans willing to cut a subsequent budget deal and allow Congress to get back to business.

So with the tables turned in public opinion—and unhappy memories of two high-profile defeats fresh in their minds—it’s no surprise that congressional Republicans aren’t spoiling for another fight over default. They know the power of a winning word.

This post first appeared as an article in Politico magazine by Doug Hattaway and Steve Pierce. You can also hear an interview with Doug about this topic on NPR’s All Things Considered.