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What's in a Name? Rebranding Madness Consumes Washington

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Global War on Terror is out -- "overseas contingency operation" is in. 

Democratic Party is out -- "Democrat Socialist Party" is in. 

Terrorist attack is out -- "man-caused disaster" is in. 

Since the new administration took office, Washington has been consumed, on both sides of the aisle, by a kind of re-branding madness. This marathon in semantics has had a variety of tactical purposes, depending on who's got his Sharpie on the dictionary. 

The Obama administration, through a string of delicate shifts in terminology, has softened -- or at least obfuscated -- the essence of the war against Islamic extremism. 

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, arguably the Washington equivalent to Madonna of re-branding, delivered an entire set of testimony without using the word "terrorism." She says she prefers "man-caused disasters." 

And the administration as a whole phased out the term "Global War on Terror." "Overseas contingency operation" became the tag that is now used in budget documents to explain where billions of taxpayer dollars are going. 

Napolitano told the German magazine Der Spiegel she's avoiding such hot-button words like "terrorism" to demonstrate the administration's desire to "move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur." 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave even less of an explanation, telling reporters in March that the name switch for the War on Terror "speaks for itself." 

Republican marketing guru Pete Snyder, with New Media Strategies -- who called former President George W. Bush a "horrible" brander -- guessed that these new names serve a common purpose. 

"The premise there is they want to confuse the public," he said, noting that Obama is pursuing a national security agenda not so far afield from Bush's. 

Doing so under the title of "overseas contingency operation" might not draw the same backlash of Code Pinkers. 

But re-branding fever has taken hold in other areas, in other departments and in the other party. Marketing wonks say this is leading to mixed results. 

"What's in a name, it's hugely important," Snyder said. "Billions of dollars are spent by corporations every year to try to take a product or a concept that is complex and boil it down into something that is very succinct and burn [it] into the brains of Americans." 

With public policy, Snyder said, branding is even more important, since lawmakers are selling products that are far more complicated. 

Unfortunately, "politicians and policymakers tend to be absolutely horrible marketers," he said. 

Bush drew criticism for the War on Terror title since it was essentially a war against an intangible force. Bush also took heat for such terms as the Clear Skies Act and Healthy Forests Initiative, both of which critics said obviously undermined their namesakes. 

Similar title-tweaking is happening in Obama's White House. 

The Treasury Department, for instance, tried to substitute the term "legacy assets" for "toxic assets" -- those stinky financial holdings that pollute the books of banks and that the government wants to take off their hands. 

"Legacy" might connote "investment" rather than "risk." But few in the media are actually using the term on a regular basis. 

Then health officials in the U.S. and the World Health Organization tried to rein in the media from using the term "swine flu" to describe the outbreak they feared would reach pandemic levels. H1N1, please, they said, as the pork lobby expressed concern that irrational fear of the pig was leading to international bans on U.S. pork products. But as one Associated Press report noted, "the virus that is scaring the world is pretty much all pig." 

The latest re-branding campaign comes out of the Republican Party, which is not trying to re-brand itself, but the other guys. reported that the Republican National Committee plans to approve a resolution to rename its rival the "Democrat Socialist Party." 

This comes after the GOP tried, to little avail, to rename the Democratic Party the Democrat Party. A few lone conservatives still use the term, but party members declined to codify the change last year and mainstream Republicans generally call the party by its real name, for now. 

Snyder said this latest move inevitably comes off as petty and misguided. 

"If the dog food we're making is being recalled, just changing the tagline isn't the best way to go about it," he said. 

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has distanced himself from the impending decision, telling NBC's "Meet the Press," that "if they do that, they do that." 

But party members opened themselves up to endless Democratic ribbing with the apparent name-change. 

"Given the challenges they face, seems exactly the way I would be using my time, too," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs joked on Friday. 

Eric Swartz, founder of the San Francisco-based brander TaglineGuru, said the GOP needs to focus more on reinventing itself than the Democrats. 

"You just can't throw a word against the wall and expect everyone to fall down and fall in love with it," he said. 

There needs to be an infrastructure behind it. For this reason, branders see a more promising campaign in the nascent attempt to overhaul the so-called War on Drugs. 

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that new drug czar Gil Kerlikowske wants to drop "War on Drugs" from the national lexicon. 

"We're not at war with people in this country," he told the paper, summing up the longstanding criticism of the term. 

Swartz said a new name for the War on Drugs could be effective if paired with new policy. 

He attributed the intense interest in Washington branding lately in part to President Obama's successful campaign, which he said showed Washington what good branding can do. 

"He owned the word 'change.' Other people tried to encroach on that -- I guess he was there first," Swartz said. "He had the logo, he had a great motto." 

So what's next? 

There's still plenty of other security-related terms to toy with, and lawmakers could certainly benefit from new terminology to soften the impact of their ongoing spending binge. 

Swartz took a crack at rebranding some key policy terms for the Obama administration, or anybody else, to use. His suggestions:

Detainees: Custodial informants 

Terrorists: Improvised ideologues 

Deficit: Long shortfall (or inverted surplus) 

One trillion dollars: Nth power financing 

Abortion: Reproductive choice 

Earmarks: Allocators 

Bailouts: Stop-gappers 

Border violence: Territorial imperative 

Torture: Non-verbal questioning 

Taxes: Income tweaks

Have at it, Washington.

Fox News Online, May 18, 2009,

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