Crushed in Obama-Romney Debate: Anatomy of Emotional Weaponry

Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

The presidential debate at a laundromat in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles.

This just in from the meme patrol.

Mitt Romney used the term “crushed”, or a variant, 11 times in the debates with President Barack Obama, mostly in reference to his view of the  treatment of the middle-class at the hands of the incumbent president.

As in:

“They’re, they’re just being crushed.”

“It’s been crushing.”

And,  “Middle-income families are being crushed,” Romney said, all in the first debate.

Or, from the second debate:

“The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again.”

And, “The middle-income families in America have been crushed over the last four years.”

You get the picture.

There were five deployments of “crushed” in each of the first two debates, which dealt in part or entirely with domestic policy and, by extension, the fortunes of middle class voters, a subset of whom are expected to decide the election.

Last night’s foreign policy debate left few easy segues to domestic economic issues, though Romney did manage to slip in a reference former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak “crushing his people”.

While Obama avoided any temptation to use “crush” during the debates, Vice President Joe Biden couldn’t help himself, rolling it out once during his Oct. 11 running mates debate with Rep. Paul Ryan.

To Biden, no stranger to the use of strong verbiage in the service of political goals, “crushed” is what happened to the middle class in 2008 after enduring Republican economic policies.

“The middle class got knocked on their heels,” Biden said. “The Great Recession crushed them.”

On Oct. 2, Biden fumbled an attempt to link some Americans’  struggles to the economic policies of the George W. Bush administration, declaring that the middle class had been “buried the last four years”.

Romney forces wasted no time in applying the campaign’s favorite modifier to what’s transpired on Obama’s watch.

“Under President Obama, the middle class has suffered from crushing unemployment, rising prices and falling incomes,” Reuters reported the campaign said in a statement.

Think of the repeated use of “crushed” as a linguistic version of an attack ad, a word chosen for emotional impact rather than factual accuracy, says Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of “Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush.” 

“If you try to figure it out logically, the middle class hasn’t been crushed,” Metcalf said.

Romney’s use of the word is an effort to exploit disappointment in Obama on an emotional level and peel away voters who supported the president in 2008 but feel he hasn’t delivered, he said.  “It’s an excellent choice of word for what Romney is trying to convey,” Metcalf said.

“I was thinking about love songs, how you get crushed when a relationship ends,” Metcalf said. “All of those people who pinned their hopes on Obama four years ago had their hopes crushed.”

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