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'Raw Politics': Words matter for Clinton, Obama

  • Story Highlights
  • Clinton, Obama have similar plans but speak different languages, Foreman says
  • Foreman: We can speak with confidence only to find we're using wrong language
  • Language gap with voters is hurting Clinton more, Foreman says
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By Tom Foreman
CNN Washington Bureau
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"Raw Politics" on "Anderson Cooper 360" delivers the latest political news with a wry sense of a humor and without spin.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- I was strolling by the river in Moscow once, when an old Russian woman walked up and asked a question.

Many voters don't listen to the language Hillary Clinton speaks, says CNN's Tom Foreman.

Mind you, I don't speak Russian, but three weeks "in country," a Berlitz phrase book, and the overarching ego issued at birth to every person who dreams of a career in television convinced me that I should fearlessly chat it up with every soul that came my way.

She pointed to a distant building, and asked a question.

In the best Russian I could muster, I answered, smiled and walked on. But as I considered the confusion on her face, I went over my words again.

What I had said was, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian very well, but that building? It's chocolate."

My willingness to try other languages (coupled with a serious lack of actual linguistic skills) has led to many such incidents:

I once terrified a cab driver in El Salvador by asking over and over, "Where's Jesus?" I've shocked an Italian tailor by asking, "Will these pants hold fish?" I told a dozen French citizens on New Year's Eve, "Good luck! My daughter is a mushroom!" And I still don't know what I said to the Albanians, but I was startled at how fast they could run while throwing rocks.

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The point: Sometimes we say things with great confidence, only to find out that we are speaking the wrong language.

That's happening to Hillary Clinton right now. She is talking the language of experience, hard work, traditional Democratic values, and the rough and tumble politics that has come to dominate Washington.

The problem is that is not the language in which many voters are listening. Their mother tongue grew out of Obamaland. Or, more accurately, he arrived in their universe speaking the language they have longed to hear, and now only his message is getting through. Hope. Dreams. Unity. Yes, we can.

Both candidates have quite similar plans for the nation. They admit it.

So ask a Clinton supporter why they don't like Barack Obama, and the answer often comes down to his words. He is too much of a showman, they say. All talk, no action. Grand dreams, but no practical plans. A cheerleader? Yes. A real leader? No.

But ask an Obama supporter why don't they like Clinton, and the answer is in her words too. Too much bureaucratic doublespeak, they say. Too interested in debates of the past, not the promise of the future. All plans, no dreams. A party leader? Yes. A real leader? No.

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So why do I say this language gap is hurting Clinton more? Because the voting says his language is connecting in more places with more people.

One highly experienced Democratic insider told me that the Old Guard of the party is utterly confused by the appeal of Obama -- by the oceans of young people, moderates, and independents flocking to his camp.

They don't know what to make of these new Democrats. They are puzzled that so many of these folks don't seem to really even care much about the Democratic Party; they just like the man. As the insider told me, the traditional Democratic leaders "don't even know how to talk to these Obama people."

Clinton may yet become the nominee. Remember, in the delegate count, she is barely behind. It would be foolish for anyone to write off her campaign, her years of experience, or her tenacity. But even if she rises back to the top, closing the gap that has grown in the party is going to take more than waving the Democratic flag. It's going to take language lessons.

Take it from a guy who once told a Greek man that his dog looked delicious. Language matters. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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