Rescue Me

John McCain, economic semantician

First it was President Bush calling the bailout a rescue plan. Now McCain is following suit, telling John Roberts of CNN’s American Morning, “The first thing I’d do is say, let’s not call it a bailout, let’s call it a rescue, because it is a rescue. It’s a rescue of Main Street America.” But how consequential is McCain’s semantic stance? Does it merit the headline (from Politico): “McCain: Change name from ‘bailout’ to ‘rescue’”?

Brian Stelter, in The New York Times, has already mentioned the discrepancy between the two terms, noting that in his address, Bush “characterized the measure in positive terms — ‘rescue plan’ and ‘asset relief program’ — thereby carefully avoiding more loaded words like ‘bailout.’” Stelter quoted Steve Liesman, the senior economics reporter for CNBC, who explained why bailout was “the more logical word”:

“You rescue the unwitting victims of a boat accident,” he said in an e-mail message. “You bail out an experienced captain who sailed knowingly into a storm. There are no innocent victims here except the American taxpayer. Wall Street, which should have known better, is getting bailed out.”

Even given this legitimate distinction, McCain’s rhetorical stance isn’t consequential in and of itself. Obama has used the word “rescue” too (to voters in Nevada: “it’s the American economy that needs this rescue plan”). And it’s not surprising that the candidates would seek to employ more palatable terms—while the legislature is under stress to pass a plan and public support for it is decreasing.

The issue is that McCain chose to make the distinction himself, thereby placing himself on the side of “rescue,” as in, yes, I am for the rescue of America. It preemptively draws a line in the sand, one similar to his ill-advised campaign suspension and request to postpone last Friday’s debate. It’s the use of a semantic argument at a moment when semantics is arguably important, but for the wrong reason—political gain. And it’s congruent with his tendency to take the moralistic high ground, a temperamental trait that mixes dangerously with what the press has called out as a series of irregular judgments.

If McCain has made stance-taking his modus operandi during this economic mess, as it seems he has, it follows that his stances—views that Paul Krugman called “erratic”—require more healthy skepticism than what a distilled headline can provide, particularly when it involves posturing about semantic differentiation. Of course, the other option is just to ignore it.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.