"Reform" may have once meant something in American politics, but overuse has so neutered it that both parties routinely compose legislation in its name. Congress has passed scores of bills containing the "R" word in their titles in the last couple of decades, and dozens more await action. There's the First Responders Funding Reform Act; the Veterans' Prescription Drug Reform Act; the Captive Supply Reform Act; and the Citizenship Reform Act, just to name a few. My favorite reform bill is the Government Reform Act. Why settle for piecemeal reform of veterans' prescription drugs, captive supply, or citizenship when reform of the whole shebang is just one bill away?
Having co-opted the R word and drained it of its original meaning—"altering for the better … some faulty state of things," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it—politicians can insert the word into their speeches and bills no matter what the program. The word gives a pleasantly positive spin to whatever they're pushing and makes their critics look like foes of reform. And who could be against reform?!
President Bush preaches a similarly nulled variety of reform almost daily at the White House: He's for Medicare reform, education reform, tort reform, securities reform, medical liability reform, welfare reform Part 2, and more. As Campaign 2004 approaches, we should expect speeches and position papers from Bush on homeowner reform, small business reform, international trade reform, and energy reform, if the White House's official "Policies and Initiatives" page is any guide. Most politicians use the R word as a fashion accessory, but others have been known to stitch a whole garment from it. Not for nothing did Ross Perot rename his pragmatist United We Stand America organization the Reform Party in 1995. During the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, Sen. John McCain marketed himself as the "reform" candidate. The press and public bought it because—hell's bells!—McCain was the co-sponsor of important campaign finance "reform" legislation and was the first on the GOP block to call himself a reformer. Just days after McCain defeated George W. Bush in New Hampshire, Bush shrewdly outmarketed his opponent by stealing the empty reformer label and fortifying it with additional words. In TV spots aired in Michigan, South Carolina, and Virginia, Bush dubbed himself the "reformer with results." Had McCain been smart, he would have come back with "the new and improved original reformer with results!" (See William Saletan's "Ballot Box" today for more.)
If the press displays any overt bias in letting one party use the R word over the other, I've not detected it. Usually, the first claimant wins exclusive use. Had Ralph Nader and the trial lawyers, for example, asserted that they were the proponents of "tort reform" before the Wall Street Journal editorial page grabbed the R word, the press would have acquiesced. Had libertarians been first to label the repeal of campaign finance regulation a form of "reform," they'd have gotten away with it. The lesson here is to claim the R word—and the high moral ground that comes with claiming it—before your opponents do. If you don't set the semantic agenda, you'll have to debate the other side using the negative leverage of the "de" prefix: Nader strains to denounce "tort deform," Robert Kuttner defensively rips "welfare deform," and TomPaine.com flails about when criticizing "campaign-finance deform," etc.
Newspapers shouldn't feel obliged to repeat the pointless R word just because politicians label their every action "reform." A Nexis dump and unscientific study of news stories from the past two years reveals the mediocre records the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post have compiled in policing the R word. These papers generally treat the word as if it were value-neutral when reporting the campaign finance, Medicare, and tort debates. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times tend to accept the phrase "Social Security reform" as a value-neutral descriptor while the New York Times balks unless the phrase is contained in a quotation.
USA Today is somewhat better about controlling the R word, especially when reporting from the campaign finance beat. USA Today political reporter Jim Drinkard acknowledges a "conscious effort" at the paper to describe campaign finance legislation with other words.
"My favorites are 'rewriting' or 'revamping' or 'overhauling'—all less freighted with judgment than 'reform,' " Drinkard says in e-mail. "It's part of a routine avoidance of adopting the language of partisans on either side of a debate, and looking for more neutral ways to describe what's going on. Probably the most prominent example of this is in dealing with the abortion issue. Calling someone anti-abortion, pro-life, or pro-choice, or using the term partial-birth abortion, all imply a level of approval or disapproval."
USA Today's polling editor, Jim Norman, says the team that produces the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll stopped using the word "reform" in describing legislation when they realized it could create a bias in the minds of respondents.
"Prior to April 2001, our questions on campaign finance laws routinely used the phrase 'campaign finance reform.' From that point on, we haven't used it, instead referring to 'new campaign finance laws' or simply 'campaign finance,' " Norman e-mails.
What would a reform-free newspaper look like? For one thing, it would help us discern whether "Medicare reform" means more or fewer government entitlements. And in piercing the blandishments of a law titled, say, "The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002," reporters could prevent politicians, special interest groups, and corporations from masking their message with the R word. Who wouldn't appreciate a little more plain talk in their morning news?