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Seems like just when the Democrats come up with a rare winner in the sound-bite “war” with the GOP – the recent “war on women” meme – it manages to offend the delicate sensibilities of a few folks who carefully try to tiptoe back from the edge. Witness Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver who sounded the retreat from the “war” almost before the first shots were fired. Cleaver did offer one of the better arguments against the use of the war metaphors (and there are some arguments that do need to be taken seriously):

“[The rhetoric is] wrong,” Cleaver said. “I think we need to stop that. It is damaging the body politic and it’s further separating the people in this country.”

McCaskill was more cautious, noting merely that:

…while the phrase “‘war on women’ is probably not the right term,” she thinks it is the correct sentiment.

She can be commended for refusing to give up on the kernel of truth at the heart of the metaphor – and, although I respect the impulse, Cleaver is probably a bit late if he thinks we can constrain the use of the war metaphor at this late date.  

As Rachel Maddow cleverly pointed out, Republicans who profess to be indignant about Democrats drawing attention to their war on women, have been busy for some time raising the troops to fight putative Democratic wars on Christmas, religion, coal, Appalachia, free enterprise, the Catholic Church and carbon dioxide. Just today Mitt Romney promised Tea Partiers that he’d end Obama’s war on the rich (not just war, but “economic civil war”).

Lyndon Johnson initiated a war on poverty; later presidents have pursued a war on drugs. There’s been war on cancer, and nobody can forget the war on terror. If anything, the biggest problem with the metaphor is that by rights it ought to be just about worn out by now; it’s been used for about everything that you can think of for literally centuries.

Nevertheless, the metaphor is used and used and used again because it’s almost always effective. Far from cheapening the idea impact of actual war, which is another one of the more serious objections to the use of the metaphor, it derives its continuing power from the terrible reality, our knowledge of which we viscerally refresh from time to time. There is no better way to define the issue in simple terms, get the juices flowing and mobilize folks to action. (Get it?  Another variant on the war metaphor.) The terms it employs seem to correspond to something fundamental in our conceptual makeup.

In spite of Cleaver’s concern that thinking in terms of “war” will inculcate division, society’s still standing despite the prevalence of the war metaphor over the eons. Nor has it kept us from cooperating when it makes sense. When we don’t, it’s more likely because we disagree in important ways, and the way those disagreements are resolved will have significant consequences for society – the situation we find ourselves in today, and the reason that the word “bipartisan” leaves thinking people prostrate with laughter.  

Which is not to  say that the war metaphor is always appropriate. Metaphor is a type of analogy; it compares distinct objects or ideas in order to explain one in terms of the other.  Analogies are only as good as the correspondence between the concepts in the comparison. For example, the idea of a war on cancer, many have argued, does not work well because it limits the researcher’s conceptual framework to oppositional approaches that may blind him/her to valuable insights. Almost any progressive can tell you why the “war on terror” is a metaphorical bust.

But the political “war on women” is another issue altogether. The bone of contention is clearly delineated. It consists of an effort to turn back the clock on a set of laws that have given women the right to control the disposition of their bodies, their fertility, and their occupational choices as well as equality in the workplace. It involves an economic philosophy that would disadvantage the majority of women and their children. As Ed Kilgore points out, just like real war, this war can also result in death. War here denotes threat. The threat is real. And the need to drum up an equally ferocious response is also real.

Want to know how you can tell that the “war on women” was drawing blood? According to TPM’s Evan McMorris-Santoro, the efforts of Democratic spokespeople to back away left Republicans “slapping each other on the back,” they were so “happy to hear national Democrats abandoning the ‘war’ rhetoric.”

We’ve had lots of talk about framing over the past few years, and here’s a chance to define the GOP with a very traditional and apt frame, one that has a visceral punch. And if you’re worried that it oversimplifies the issues, cheapens the debate, tell me, how do you play nice with bullies – without going home with a blackened eye, that is?