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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VIEW FROM AMERICA: Bush's Sweet Patter Won't Fool Women




It's government's role to create an environment where everyone can dream and flourish.


"The purpose of prosperity is to make the American dream touch every willing heart."


What is this? An inspirational speech from a New Age guru? No, it's a plea for campaign contributions from georgewbush.com. Why all these "hearts" and "dreams" on a political web site? That's what I wondered, until I realized the answer: to appeal to women voters through emotional language designed to win their "hearts."


Perhaps I should have anticipated this in 1997, when pollster Frank Luntz gave Republican members of the U.S. Congress a memo called "Language of the 21st Century." It said Republicans need not "change our substance or create a separate women's agenda" because "listening to women and adapting a new language and a more friendly style will itself be rewarded." Although Mr. Luntz isn't one of his advisers, George W. Bush seems to have absorbed the lesson.


Foremost among women-friendly words is "children." In a speech on tax cuts last month, Bush managed to work in "child" or "children" 11 times. In a talk in New Hampshire in November, children recur like a mantra 35 times - not counting "kids" and "students." Yes, the topic was education, which is, after all, about children. But the repetition was striking, and the speech also contained a dizzying array of other emotion-laden words: seven "loves," nine "hopes," three "dreams" and three "hearts."


Bush's education speech showed another strategy in appealing to women: First stir up fears, then lure the listener with talk of hopes and dreams. (Fear is "a very salable commodity," according to the Luntz memo.) Bush told the crowd, "In an American school year, there are more than 4,000 rapes or cases of sexual battery, and 11,000 physical attacks." He went on: "Safety and discipline are essential. But when we dream for our children, we dream with higher goals. We want them to love learning."


Politicians talk about dreams and children, but none are doing so with anything near Bush's intensity. And while President Bill Clinton has always used words for emotional impact, in the case of women he has done so to gain support for concrete proposals to improve their lives.


The Pavlovian view of women voters - plug the words in, and they will respond - sends a chill down my spine because it sounds like an adaptation of something I have written about communication between the sexes: When a woman tells a man about a problem, she doesn't want him to fix it; she just wants him to listen and let her know he understands. But there's a difference between a private conversation and a presidential election, between what we want from our lovers and what we want from our leaders.


Evidence of this distinction may be showing up in recent polls: According to Zogby International, Bush's lead among Republican women nationwide has dipped from 66 percent in October to 56 percent in January. Women may not want their men to solve all their personal problems, but solving the nation's is, after all, what we elect our leaders to do.


Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, contributed this comment to The New York Times.