As we tune into another thrilling episode of Emo Senator, Southern Minnesota's most watched telenovela, fans of Mike Parry, the Belle of Waseca County, are chattering about Friday night's "First District Congressional Debate" on Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) on Friday night.
Both the Emo Senator and Allen Quist carried on about the need to reduce the federal deficit and spending. As Almanac doesn't allow embedding of video, here's a transcript:
Eric Eskola: How about entitlements? That's where the big money is, of course, in the federal budget. That, and defense.
Parry: Well, absolutely. You have to take a look at the entitlements-- you have to have a backbone to stand up strong. We've taken a shot at that right here in the state of Minnesota. And we've worked hard at doing that.
But yeah, you have to take a look at that, you've got to cut them back, you've got to be able to say "no." You know, I coined the phrase when I was running: we have a safety net for those who really fall on hard times, but it should not turn into a hammock . . .
The scriptwriter furrowed her brow, as she noticed her star slipping from amnesia, his signature disorder, into delusions of grandeur, the megalomania characteristic of a person stricken by NDP. Was the Emo Senator fancying that he is former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who said in 2000:
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a government-funded social safety net. What kind of nation would we be if we weren’t able to help people when they were genuinely in need? But we’ve got to make sure our government programs remain safety nets and not hammocks.
But Ventura didn't coin the phrase, so maybe Senator Parry is channeling former Massachusetts Governor and 2008 Obama supporter William Weld in his 1991 manifestation.
The History of a Sound Bite
Once upon a time in Massachusetts, Parry/Weld's metaphor was fresh and remarkable, In fact, on July 11, 1991, the Boston Globe reported in "A simile snagged in the netting":
JUST WHEN YOU THINK you've heard the last of the Weldisms, the governor comes up with a new one. Yesterday, the man who introduced "walruses" (for patronage hacks) and "gooney bird" (for deficit-solving federal windfall) to the State House political vocabulary was grilled by reporters about whether cuts in social services would shred the so-called safety net for the state's most vulnerable citizens.
Assuring that "the most needy, the truly needy, will be provided for," Weld said he wanted to see changes in welfare programs such as General Relief that would encourage people to get back into the workforce quickly. Weld said the safety net would survive, but would be "more like a trampoline instead of a hammock." (Nexis All News database, accessed April 15, 2012; all citations below from this search)
The remark drew much attention, and was favorably cited in a profile of Weld published in Reason Magazine ("The welfare hammock," Boston Herald, October 4, 1991) and the Washington Post (Paul Taylor, "Welfare Reformers Seek to Modify Budgets and Behavior," December 16, 1991).
George Will cited the remark in his October 22, 1992, WaPo column, "The GOP's Libertarian Puck," and the sound bite was much recycled in 1995 as the Clinton-era debate over welfare reform heated up.
Indeed, On National Public Radio's Soundbites program March 8, 1995 segment, "Keeping It Short And Sweet - Part 2," Weld's bon mot came up in a most fascinating reflection by Alex Chadwick on what went into the creation of a particular soundbite (that Mike Parry claimed to have invented):
Researchers like to assemble total strangers in discussion groups and then get them talking about anything from peanut butter to politics, and that's why Glen Bolger was standing behind a one-way mirror a couple of months ago in Seattle, watching a focus group he'd chosen with particular care. Mr. Bolger works for a political consulting firm called Public Opinion Strategies. They advise Republicans on how to win elections, and conservative interest groups on how to win arguments.
But, for the left or the right, a political consultant these days wants to know about one special group of voters - those who voted for Bill Clinton or Ross Perot in 1992 and then went Republican in the last congressional elections. And on the other side of that mirror that concealed Glen Bolger was an entire roomful of these voters, and they were talking politics.
Because they really were the kind of key swing voters that made the Republican majority. One of the issues that we were talking about was welfare reform, and somebody mentioned that safe- that welfare ought to be a safety net and not a hammock.
Let me repeat that, in case you didn't get it. A classic swing voter, just the kind who will decide what's going to happen next, on the issue of welfare said, `It ought to be a safety net, not a hammock.' Inside Mr. Bolger's head something went off that sounded like the diving siren in old submarine movies - Owooga, owooga! [emphasis added]
Everybody that- that I shared it with immediately afterwards said, `Boy, that's - man, that's a great line. I got to- got to use that one.' And it's gotten pretty widespread distribution since then.
Widespread distribution means Mr. Bolger's company has sent the impressions from Seattle, and that snappy welfare soundbite, to a number of clients with interest in public policy. Indeed, the firm is advising even Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole on his presidential ambitions.
All this I learned by telephone one day last week, and the very next day I was talking with Mary Matalin. She is the host of the CNBC cable news analysis show Equal Time. She was a senior adviser to President Bush's re-election campaign and she is very smart politically. Once again the subject was soundbites.
Some guys obviously are- are just sort of - naturally speak in quippish ways, and some candidates themselves do. I - my favorite of the season so far has been Phil Gramm. I was - and some of these are pretty easy and obvious. `I was a conservative before conservative was cool,' or `I want to provide a safety net, not a hammock.' You know, usually what they try to do, if you think about how to do 'em, you want to do a compare and a contrast. Just like using the Gramm example, again, `A safety net, not a hammock.'
There it was. Glen Bolger's Seattle soundbite, the one he has just started circulating in private letters to his clients, not a campaign jewel perhaps, but, for a soundbite, certainly a worthy bauble, and there it was, emerging from the mouth of the chief rival to the guy Mr. Bolger's company is advising, or at least put in that mouth by Mary Matalin.
[interviewing] You know that phrase that you quote coming from Phil Gramm, I spoke to a campaign consultant who told me that he discovered that phrase two months ago in a focus group in Seattle.
Listen, no one in politics ever said - in fact, what people in politics always say is, `If I am using it, I stole it from somebody else.' There is absolutely nothing new.
I checked with two press aides at the Gramm for President headquarters. `Senator Gramm came up with the welfare safety nets and hammock soundbite on his own,' said the first. `Never heard of it,' said the second. Both promised to call back; neither did.
The NPR research librarian found pretty obscure mention of welfare hammocks as far back as eight or nine years, and the governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, was using it a few years ago. Alas, it looks as though Glen Bolger's crackling discovery is not so shiny new as he'd imagined. `No matter,' he says, and no hard feelings. He's not going to call up Senator Gramm or anyone else to complain because, really, he says, as far as soundbites go -
It's a free country and there's free speech.
Which only means that even if it is recycled, should a consultant or a candidate think voters will respond to `Welfare should be a safety net, not a hammock'? Should they think it's going to work? You're going to hear it a lot more. This is Alex Chadwick.
So who was Mike Parry channeling when he tweeted that soundbite in 2009? Jesse Ventura? Phil Gramm? William Weld in Reason magazine or George Will? William Weld in 1991?
More recently, the soundbite has been resuscitated by Paul Ryan in January; in Minnesota, the phrase dropped in early March from Mary Franson's mouth during her now famous hit Youtube in which she repeated a coarse internet funny comparing feeding poor people to feeding wild animals.
Ryan and Franson have not, so far as the scriptwriter knows, publicly credited the phrase to Mike Parry nor claimed authorship.
Has the Belle of Waseca County been making this claim of authorship while wooing delegates? It rings with the honesty of his claim that ALEC's corporate bill factory had nothing whatsoever to do with that asbestos freedom bill he "wrote" --and Governor Dayton lately vetoed.
Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Emo Senator, when we look at Parry's plan--also revealed on Friday's Almanac--to leave American troops overseas until the economy improves.
Image: Mike Parry, an original diva if there ever were one.