Early Friday morning, Politico ran a provocative story titled, “Can the F-Bomb Save Beto?” In it, they chewed over presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s frequent swearing, whether it’s appropriate and whether it works for him as a symbol of his passion.
By 8:30 that morning, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign had an announcement to make: He, too, had said a bad word! “Governor Bullock on The Daily Show: I’ve Actually Had to Get S— Done,” blared its news release.
The 2020 Democratic primary has at times felt like a competition over who can employ the most strategic curses. The majority of candidates have uttered at least one (depending upon how you define “curse”), and you can see lots of examples in the video above. We seem to be headed in a direction of more rather than fewer in the months ahead.
It was probably inevitable. We’ve got a foul-mouthed president, relative to his predecessors, who has tempted Democrats to emulate his norm-breaking ways. President Trump has cursed at least 87 times in public, during speeches, interviews and on Twitter, according to Factba.se transcripts, and he’s cursed more each year he’s been in office (only seven times in 2017, but 46 thus far in 2019).
We’ve also got a Democratic Party that is righteously angry about Trump’s presidency, and we’ve got a crowded Democratic field in which pulling stunts is sometimes the only way to get noticed.
But to be clear, the cursing is often a stunt, and transparently so. It’s not a coincidence that the most vulgar words, both by quantity and quality, have been uttered by those toward the bottom of the polls. I’ve often said that if you’re cursing, you’re losing. And the four candidates who lead in the polls — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — have kept it almost completely clean during their candidacies.
The most vulgar candidate also happens to be the one who has lost the most ground. O’Rourke swore off swearing in early April, when he was near 10 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. Today, he’s at about 2 percent and has unleashed a growing torrent of foul words — particularly when talking about the issue of gun violence.
Given the mass shooting that took place in his hometown of El Paso, that’s understandable. But now O’Rourke has taken things a step further and is selling campaign T-shirts that say “This is f—ed up” repeatedly, on top of “End gun violence now” and “Beto for America.”
Julián Castro’s vulgarities have been less plentiful but more awkward. In April, Castro appeared on Bill Maher’s HBO show and dropped two “bulls—s.” Both times, Maher seemed pained to hear the politician try so hard. “Oh!” Maher said. Then Castro repeated the sentence, and Maher again said, “Oh!”
A couple of months earlier, Castro used the word while talking to NPR about why young Latinos aren’t speaking Spanish. “Whoa, did you just say BS?” his interviewer asked. “I did,” Castro affirmed with an air of self-satisfaction. Earlier that month, he told New York magazine “50 percent of headlines are bulls—.” Castro has also run a TV ad in which he quotes President Trump saying “s—holes,” though it’s beeped out.
Cory Booker used that word in July’s debate, and CNN wasn’t quick enough to censor it. He has also said that “thoughts and prayers” for victims of gun violence are “bulls—.” When some on the right raised questions about Harris’s heritage, Booker tweeted Harris “doesn’t have s— to prove.” And his campaign manager at one point tweeted a text message in which Booker called Trump’s comments about gun violence “a bulls— soup of ineffective words.”
Not that the major candidates have never had potty mouths. Joe Biden’s occasional curse words were a focus during the 2012 campaign (remember “BFD”?). Harris is reportedly fond of a compound swear word involving a female parent, and she used it in a 2017 New York Times interview. She also said the f-word publicly in 2017. And Sanders in 2015 offered a “bulls—” at one point.
But even as their opponents have moved in that direction, they haven’t repeated their past sins in 2019. And the most ascendant candidate in the 2020 race, Warren, once remarked that her favorite swear word was “poop.”
The odd swear word can be effective when deployed in the right circumstances. But the more everybody is using them, the less novel and effective they become. They can also quite easily come off as contrived and desperate. We know politicians are constantly measuring the things they say and that they aren’t supposed to swear publicly. So when they do curse, it’s difficult not to at least think it might be calculated.
Democrats can occasionally try a little too hard too — especially when it comes to playing Trump’s game. Whatever you think of Trump, his vulgarity doesn’t seem contrived because he’s never been a polished politician. And what Democrats don’t need right now is for people to believe their passion is superficial and that they’re uttering bad words because they think it will poll well or get people to pay attention to them. That’s the danger here.
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