Stand up for ‘lame duck’

Eventually we’ll know more about why Amy Koch decided to resign as majority leader, but for now we’re stuck with the same story that everyone gives for leaving every job: More time with family, and/or exciting new opportunities. Here’s how she put it: “I want to explore some other options. I want to spend a little time with my daughter.” No surprise there, nor anything revealing.

But here’s what caught my attention: Koch’s assertion that she didn’t think the Senate Republican caucus should be led by a lame duck. Huh? In what sense is she a lame duck?

Only in the sense that Sarah Palin was, when she resigned as governor of Alaska with a year and change left to her term. Those who care about language and the meaning of words have to speak up now, or “lame duck” – a useful term in talking about politics – will be lost forever.

The term refers to an officeholder who is on the way out because of term limits or a defeat at the polls. Here’s a handy look at its origins, provided in podcast form by my colleagues Curtis Gilbert and Molly Bloom.

If “lame duck” meant what Koch and Palin are using it to mean, then every politician not planning to run again would be a lame duck. Robert Schlesinger at U.S. News and World Report made the point well a couple of years ago. Under Palin’s logic, he wrote,


No president should run for a second term because they would instantly be a powerless lame duck, subjecting the country to four years of utter fecklessness. And if a president is then not going to run for a second term, they automatically become a lame duck as soon as they take office in their first term … so they should not seek the presidency at all.

(I write this in full knowledge that there’s a different word for people like me who struggle to keep language from changing: Dinosaurs. I wear the label proudly.)

  • Mark from St Paul

    I have no clue why this post makes you a dinosaur. The term “lame duck” has not evolved and no one other that Palin and Koch are using the word in this way (and Koch is misusing the term most likely only because Palin did).

    Please police our language more forcibly. If public radio won’t stand up for using language correctly, who will?

  • John P II

    Schlesinger quoted William Safire’s Political Dictionary, which I guess works if you are a political wonk but you can’t really accuse Palin of being one. I never knew lame ducks were related to bears and bulls.

    I think Senator Amy was more of a sitting duck. But if she’s the fourth resignation, are there two more to come?

  • Michele

    I agree re your point of the misusage of “lame duck”. But language isn’t static and continues to evolve.

    The new wrinkle is that she was asked to step down (by the Republicans) because she had an “inappropriate relationship” with a male staffer. I’m definitely not a big supporter of Amy Koch as a politician or a policy maker, but this sort of sounds like a witchhunt. Unless this staffer is under 18, how is it anyone’s business except those involved? And hasn’t Amy Koch been pretty successful achieving most of the Republican’s limited spending/shrink gobmint agenda? Why are they tossing her aside on such thin pretext? Either there is a lot more to this story or the state GOP is truly blinded by an extreme social conservative prejudice. It will be interesting to follow this story.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Ah, those “family values” repugnicans.

  • John P II

    I’m not aware of anyone reporting that she was asked to step down, and Koch herself has denied this. Of course, she also cited her ill mother and wanting to spend more time with her high school age daughter as reasons. This looks more like damage control in hopes of avoiding ethics charges (or worse.)

    If it walks like a duck …