Topic: Government & Politics

Cover Phrases: The Campaign Ethics Test
(3/9/2004)

As the political season gets into full swing, Ethics Scoreboard offers a reliable indicator of whether a candidate is ethically challenged: the use of "cover phrases." Candidates use cover phrases to hide the reality of what he or she is saying, or to actively mislead those who hear or read the remarks to think he is saying something else. Cover phrases are euphemisms, but they are worse: euphemisms exist to make ugly things sound less harsh to the ear. Cover phrases are lies in word form.

The most egregious examples are the familiar cover phrases of the contentious abortion debate, "pro-choice" and "pro-life." Both intentionally ignore the real issue, which is how public policy should balance the rights and welfare of the pregnant woman against the existence of the fetus. "Pro-choice" pretends the fetus doesn't exist; "Pro-life" ignores the dilemma of the woman. Use of either phrase just trivializes a true ethical dilemma by only focusing on the positive results of the opposing positions: Who is against freedom of choice? Who is anti-life? The issue is whether one is pro-abortion, anti-abortion, or in favor of some limitation on abortion. Honest and courageous candidate will state their position clearly in those terms. The cowardly and deceitful one will opt for one of the cover phrases.

Then there are the candidates, which seem to include Senator John Kerry, who use the cover phrases to have it both ways. These candidates say they "oppose abortion on moral grounds" but are also "pro-choice." For a public official, this stance can be translated (with some difficulty) as meaning, "I think abortion is wrong, but I don't have the courage to base my official position on my own beliefs." What are we to make of a candidate who will endorse and support conduct he believes is wrong? This approach was championed by Mario Cuomo, and lost him considerable respect. Kerry needs to tell the country what, if anything, he thinks is wrong about abortion, and clearly articulate how that wrong should be addressed in public policy.

"Gaming" is another cover phrase, although one so blatantly dishonest that few politicians have the gall to use it. Not so pro-gambling lobbyists, who will actually face a camera and argue that this intentionally misleading word for legalized slot machines, video poker and blackjack is really more accurate than "gambling."

"We're selling relaxation, excitement and fun!" they say, as if there is no difference between craps and Chutes and Ladders. People don't lose the mortgage money playing Chutes and Ladders, and an addiction to Trivial Pursuit does not result in suicide.

"Traditional family values" represents another variety of cover phrase, the code. This one is a code for, among other things, "anti- all things gay." Its ancestor was the infamous "state's rights" which was code for "keep the blacks in their place."

New cover-phrases evolve all the time. One currently in vogue, in connection with the gay marriage issue and the advisability of a Constitutional amendment, is "leaving it up to the states," which means, "I support gay marriage but don't have the guts to come out and say so." At a time when states have decided the issue only to have their legislation or propositions over-turned by the courts, it is clear that this cover phrase is the height of deceit. The courts have taken the matter away from the states. That may be a desirable thing, but misrepresenting the current balance of power by implying that the states call the shots is dishonest.

Is "affirmative action" a cover phrase for racial preferences, as the conservative activists maintain? Not from this vantage point. Affirmative action accurately explains the philosophy behind the policy, which is (whether one agrees with it or not) that pro-active measures are required in hiring and academic admissions to over-come the legacy of slavery. It is a fair term. "Racial preferences" is the cover phrase. It refers to only the most negative and divisive aspect of the policy's operation, precisely to make it sound as unfair and objectionable as possible. This issue is an ethical conflict requiring a cost benefit analysis. Focusing only on the costs is deceptive.

Use of cover phrases is a sure sign that your candidate is unwilling to be clear about his or her position, or worse, is actually ashamed of it. Candidates will stop using them if they stop working. To that end, Ethics Scoreboard solicits cover phrases, and the names of the candidates who use them, from visitors to this site. Please send them to . We'll write about those, too.

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