A few days ago I received a news release from Emily’s List attacking U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada for being “spineless” on health care.
Emily’s List is an organization founded in 1985 that helps raise money for women candidates. The term “spineless” jumped out at me as an example of the way politics has changed. It may not seem all that extreme in today’s crude politics, but when the List was founded, the term was rarely, if ever, used in politics. Rather, candidates would speak in formal, polite terms like “failed to vote the courage of his convictions” or some such. It would have been highly unlikely for Emily’s List to employ the word in 1985.
Spineless. I get a lot of news releases. I ran a search of my emails and found it has become common in recent campaigns.
Last year, Ruben Kihuen’s Democratic U.S. House campaign put out a statement referring to his Republican opponent Cresent Hardy’s “spineless decision to hide from his constituents.”
And Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Heck was denounced by Evan Zimmerman of American Bridge for “his spineless support – and equally spineless unendorsement – of Donald Trump” for president. Apparently Heck couldn’t win, whether supporting Trump or not supporting him. (There was also a statement by television personality Mika Brzezinski circulated in which she allegedly said “You’re pathetic, you’re weak, you’re spineless” to Heck, but after listening to the tape, I do not find she mentioned Heck.)
Republican leadership generally has been called spineless over the years by Harry Reid, Portland State University professor Mel Gurtov, the New York Times editorial page, and Sharron Angle.
What’s interesting is that this kind of a severe term is being used where it is usually not needed. Here’s an example: Fringe Republicans this year failed to keep a Nevada program that pays parents $5,000 grants to take their children out of public school alive. When it became a case of the entire state budget or the school grants program, more mainstream Republicans chose the state budget. Assemblymember Jim Marchant ran a tweet calling Gov. Brian Sandoval and other Republicans “spineless.” Now, why the strong language? This wasn’t an issue like lynching, torture, abortion or euthanasia. The players weren’t Pinochet, Pahlavi, and Saddam. It was an education program. If we use extreme language for everyday issues, what do we have left to use when profound issues of life and death matters are on the agenda? This is how the language becomes cheapened.
It is possible readers will want to know whether THIS writer has ever used the term. I ran a search of all my writings on my computer and got two hits. It turns out I have used the term. Once was in 2014 in this space when I recalled that a group of school children went to the Nevada Legislature to ask lawmakers to make the bristlecone pine the official Nevada state tree. The children neglected to do their homework on this project and did not know Nevada already had a state tree, the pinion pine. I thought it was a good time to demonstrate to children that one of the outcomes one must accept when they get involved in politics is losing. “But the lawmakers spinelessly decided to give Nevada TWO state trees, a situation that remains in place today,” I wrote.
The other time was last year when I wrote a short recommendation of a book at a time when new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told the public and police in that nation to kill fellow citizens if they believed those citizens were drug dealers. So far, upward of 7,000 people who may or may not have been drug dealers have so far been murdered. Duterte had no authority to do what he did, and there is no reason not to believe that everyday citizens killed people to whom they owned money or that police killed Duterte critics.
Anyway, I wrote about the book “Hitler’s First Victims” in which author Timothy Ryback told the story of a local German prosecutor who, shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933, heard about the killing of the first four victims at Dachau. It apparently never occurred to him NOT to do something about it, and he investigated and tried to prosecute, but the Nazis buried the matter in bureaucracy. I wrote, “This volume has direct relevance today. If a prosecutor could do his duty in a 1933 Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler, it is fair to ask why spineless Philippine prosecutors are sitting on their hands today.”
I probably wouldn’t use the term again in the first instance, but I would defend its use in the second.
Dennis Myers is an awardwinning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.