Emily Larsen, DCNF
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in her weekly briefing Thursday that President Donald Trump appropriated the “drain the swamp” mantra that she used in her 2006 election campaign.
Various officials and pundits have used the political idiom for over a century, including Pelosi, who promised to “drain the swamp” in 2006 by passing ethics legislation.
“Some may recall that in 2005, 2006, one of our mantras during the campaign was to ‘drain the swamp’ – to end the Republican culture of cronyism, corruption and incompetence,” she said. “And that’s exactly what we did. The President has appropriated that term of art, ‘drain the swamp,’ and what does he do but have an administration that is wallowing in it.”
In a political context, the idiom can refer to a place with a lack of ethics or a history of poor policies, and fits well with the urban legend that Washington, D.C. is built on a swamp. One expression says, “when you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the goal was to drain the swamp.” Trump brought the phrase into everyday political discussion after he adopted it at the end of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Pelosi pledged during her 2006 campaign to “drain the swamp” by introducing ethics and financial reform legislation during the first 100 hours of a Democratic majority in the House. When the Democrats took control of the House with that election, Pelosi became speaker.
“‘Drain the swamp’ means to turn this Congress into the most honest and open Congress in history. That’s my pledge — that is what I intend to do,” she told NBC’s Brian Williams right after the election.
Pelosi was not the first to appropriate the idiom, though. Barry Popik, who studies the history of words and their meaning, found that socialists in the early twentieth century used the phrase as a political metaphor.
Conservatives used the phrase in the latter half of the twentieth century to describe politics in Washington.
President Ronald Reagan called to “drain the swamp of over-taxation, over-regulation and runaway inflation that has dangerously eroded our free way of life” on his first anniversary in office. “Don’t let the Washington whirl or the Washington morass let you lose sight of why we came here and what it is that we’re all trying to do,” he said.
Jack Kemp, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, also vowed to “drain the swamp,” and conservative commentator George Will used the phrase in a 1994 column comparing congressmen to crocodiles.
After 9/11, strategists popularized the term to describe the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the Middle East. Days after the attack, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the U.S. would go after terrorists by moving “to drain the swamp they live in.”
“The objective of this war must be to make it impossible or intolerable for any state to harbor, protect or aid and abet terrorists. The point is not to swat every mosquito but to drain the swamp,” wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell used the phrase several times in a 2004 9/11 Commission hearing.
“It is time to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.,” he said at an October 2016 Wisconsin rally. “That is why I am proposing a package of ethics reforms to make our government honest once again.”
Trump was slow to embrace the phrase, though. “I didn’t like the expression ‘drain the swamp in Washington,’” he said at an Oct. 26, 2016 campaign rally. “So I said it three days ago, the place went crazy. I said, you know what? I’m starting to like that expression.”
Ben Carson’s presidential campaign even produced a 2015 ad focused on “draining the swamp.” Ron Paul also vowed to “drain the swamp” in an ad for his 2012 presidential campaign. Grassroots conservatives had already adopted the idiom prior to Trump and used it on social media.
— Glen T (@ggeett37aaa) September 29, 2016
Trump has faced criticism for failing to “drain the swamp” for various reasons. After taking office, he signed an executive order imposing a five-year ban on ex-administration officials taking part in lobbying activities. But The New York Times Magazine reported in August that nearly 20 people in Trump’s sphere of influence went to work for lobbying firms.
Pelosi, too, was accused of failing to clean up Washington. “Under her tenure as speaker of the House, the congressional swamp has grown more putrid, more corrupt, and even more out-of-touch with ordinary Americans,” wrote rock musician Ted Nugent in a 2010 op-ed.
One ecologist argues that the idiom is an insult to real swamps. “Swamps do not deserve their reputation as useless ecosystems, nor do they deserve to be co-opted as a lazy, inept political metaphor,” wrote Adam Rosenblatt, a policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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