Analysis: Some voters want candidates who watch what they say. Some don’t.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, has become known for his impassioned language on the campaign trail. O'Rourke is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, has become known for his impassioned language on the campaign trail. O’Rourke is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
Illustration by Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Emily Albracht

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Ever wondered why politicians don’t cuss more in public?

It’s because it doesn’t work. It’s more subtractive than additive, and politics works best when adding to your support and subtracting from your opponent’s support.

Subtracting from your own support doesn’t make any sense.

But at the right moment, a cussing candidate can be attractive, especially to voters who are mad as all get out. It’s an expression of frustration, of emphasis, of “this must not stand.”

Sometimes, it is used to connote toughness. MJ Hegar, the Democrat trying to end U.S. Rep. John Carter’s tenure in Washington, is touted by her own campaign as a “badass.” (The headline from a news release this week: “Badass Democratic Candidate MJ Hegar Releases Video Sharing Story of Her Tattoos.”) That’s not a bad thing for a combat helicopter pilot; it’s a harder sell at the PTA bake sale.

Beto O’Rourke has dropped so many f-bombs it’s part of his brand. It works better on the stump for an outsider trying to break in than it would work, at least publicly, in the U.S. Senate. It creates an impression, too — one that, as with Hegar, might be more useful to an outsider than to someone representing the rest of us.

Unless your version of “the rest of us” is the angry people on the outside. It plays, in a different way, like the running squabble over football players kneeling during the national anthem — another battlefield in the culture clashes that underlie current politics. Cussing is about how politicians speak. The anthem, about what they say.

It’s not just politicians. It’s a shift in the way people talk informally. The stuff that used to make a grandmother frown is now mainstream speech. The Texas Tribune briefly — very briefly — had a donation slogan on its website that began, “This shit doesn’t pay for itself.” Lots of people thought it was funny and hip. Enough others’ eyebrows went up and the slogan came down.

Political speech has to operate in so many environments that candidates and their consultants have strained over the years to take the edges off of it — to find strong ways to say things without prompting mama to grab the soap to wash out their mouths.

Edginess, it turns out, isn’t dead.

Here comes Hegar with a “tattoo” commercial — the one announced in that badass news release — that manages, in 30 seconds, to point out that she’s a veteran, that she got tattoos to cover up scars of war, and that she’s a mom with a cute kid.

Candidates on both sides of the cultural divide are mining this seam to rev up their supporters. Democrats are generally hoping to incite progressive and liberal non-voters to rise from their couches and recliners to vote. Republicans are generally hoping to convince Texas conservatives on a two-decade winning strength that they can’t keep the majority by sauntering complacently through this election cycle.

The cultural splits might be even stronger when the language is clean and the subject is barbed. That’s where you see Beto O’Rourke rising on the strength of a viral video of his town-hall answer to the anthem question in which he took the side of the athletes who were kneeling and speaking out. And here comes Ted Cruz with a television commercial vilifying that same speech as a signal that he’s running against someone who doesn’t honor the flag, a sentiment that resonates with his audience.

The Carter-Hegar matchup and the Cruz-O’Rourke race have a strange aspect in common: Opposing candidates saying the same thing to their audiences and getting opposing reactions.

Carter and Hegar alike can point to her tattoos and language — her public image — and her liberalism, and it works for both of them. Carter’s older conservatives see a new candidate coloring outside the lines. Hegar’s younger progressives see the same thing. Presumably, they’ll go out and vote against each other, maybe with the same talking points in mind, read different ways.

The same thing is at work, even more clearly, in the U.S. Senate contest. O’Rourke is running around dropping f-bombs and Cruz is chasing him with a bar of soap. Sometimes, it’s explicitly about cursing. Other times it’s about how others communicate on the political stage — one sees high-profile celebrities disrespecting the flag and, with it, the United States of America. The other sees patriots speaking for what they believe in. And presumably, each believes — with some cause — that his voters will get worked up enough to turn out a couple of months from now.

Ask not for whom these messages are coded. They’re coded for you.



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