An old political maxim holds that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose.
But after voters rewarded Donald Trump despite – or perhaps because of – his plain, often expletive-prone rhetoric, Democrats are suddenly quite eager to adopt the language of America’s president.
From the party’s new chairman to a senator many believe will run for the White House in 2020, Democrats are letting loose four-letter words in public speeches and interviews, causing a small stir, at least in political circles, where swearing in public is usually off limits.
“Republicans don’t give a sh*t about people,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said last month, drawing criticism from GOP officials not only for the sentiment but also for the words he employed to convey it.
“If we’re not helping people, we should go the f*ck home,” said Kirsten Gillibrand, a senator from New York who more than a few Democrats hope will challenge Trump for the presidency. Her uncensored declaration appeared in New York Magazine, which quoted her twice more using a curse word.
Swear words are hardly the stuff to get worked up about in a country grappling with serious, complicated problems at home and abroad. But behind the rhetoric is a real struggle for a party still trying to find its way in the aftermath of last year’s electoral catastrophe. In the age of Trump, party strategists wonder, do Democrats need to start talking in bolder, blunter terms to connect with voters – even if that means occasionally contributing to the swear jar?
“It’s always been interesting to have a private conversation where a politician cusses like a sailor, and then you get out in the real world and they’re using words like ‘sugar’ and ‘gee golly,’ ” said John Morgan, a longtime Democratic donor from Florida who is considering entering next year’s governor’s race.
People instinctively recognize the difference.
“It’s just not authentic,” he said. “Most politicians are not authentic, which is why most people don’t like most politicians. They can see right through them.”
Morgan is known for his candid manner of speaking. In an interview with McClatchy, he casually uttered a trio of on-the-record expletives – and made sure the reporter knew he was speaking on the phone while sitting poolside at his home.
Would-be candidates like Morgan are, if nothing else, primed to resonate with the Democratic base, which has been consumed in fury since Trump took office. Many of the most fervent activists certainly haven’t worried about swear words so far: Madonna, for instance, said during a speech at the Women’s March on Washington in January that detractors of the protest could “buzz off.” Except, of course, she didn’t say “buzz.”
The surge in anger has left many of the party’s leaders racing to catch up, hoping to prove they feel the same visceral disgust. It’s why someone like Perez, who’s been on the job less than two months, might use a swear word – and why he might continue to do so.
“What Tom has said over the last few weeks just shows his anger toward this administration and the policies they’re trying to push that will hurt the American people,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, DNC spokeswoman. “What you’re going to see from him in the months and years ahead is that he’s going to continue to speak out and fight for the American people.”
Perez has repeated his foul-mouthed criticism of Republicans in interviews and statements since, making it something of a catchphrase for the newly minted party leader.
Cursing isn’t unheard-of in politics. Former Vice President Joe Biden, leaning in close to President Barack Obama during the signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, famously told the chief executive that the law was a “big f*cking deal.”
Last year, in a tape revealed during the home stretch of the presidential campaign, Trump was caught telling a television host in 2005 just to grab women “by the pussy.” Democrats and Republicans alike swore it was the end for Trump; indeed many thought he might drop out of the race.
Neither moment was meant for the public. Perez’s and Gillibrand’s comments were, suggesting at least one party thinks Trump’s blunt rhetoric has changed the rules for all.
“In the age of Trump, you can get away with virtually everything,” said Ed Rendell, a former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.
Rendell’s mouth has frequently gotten him in trouble, whether musing publicly – and jokingly – about gassing Republican legislators or saying America had become a “nation of wusses” after the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL postponed one of their games because of a snowstorm. He even wrote a book titled “Nation of Wusses.”
But the governor said he tried to draw the line at cursing in public.
“I wanted to be a positive role model for kids,” Rendell said. “I would lose my temper but never in public. I would curse, but almost never in public.”
The governor acknowledged he didn’t always live up to that standard. But the former DNC chairman said that in Perez’s case he could simply have said the word “hoot” and the effect would have been nearly the same.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s not a big deal,” he said. “But I do think some political leaders and some elected officials are role models and should be role models.”
Rendell and Morgan are united in one belief: However the Democratic Party finds its way back to power, it won’t be because they use bad language. The former Pennsylvania governor said the party should be spending more time talking about the Trump administration’s decision to repeal overtime rules for workers and other matters related to middle-class economics.
Morgan demurred when asked whether he was really going to run for governor, saying people kept asking him to run but that, as a wealthy businessman, he had a nice life already.
And even he said that if he did, don’t count on him to start cursing at every opportunity.
“I’ve got grandchildren,” he said. “So my wife has told me to stop.”