The 2020 Democratic primary campaign 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”). 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 Donald 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. Beto O’Rourke swore off swearing in early April, when he was near 10% in the RealClearPolitics average. Today, he’s at about 2% and has unleashed a growing torrent of foul words — particularly when talking about the issue of gun violence.
Not that the major candidates have never had potty mouths. Biden’s occasional curse words have been a focus in the past (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.
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.