Getting To Yes

scottwalker4This explains a lot:

There’s a funny thing about [Scott Walker]: The governor has a curious verbal tic—well known among some Walker watchers but largely ignored by everyone else—where, well, he says yes to everything.

Ask him a question at a press conference or in a gaggle, and he’ll bob his head up and down while saying something like “Yeah” or “Yeah, absolutely.” He says that the way other people might say “Um,” or “Listen,” or “Hmm.” It’s a filler word.

But here’s the thing: Not everyone knows that.

I had sort of picked up on it. Which is to say there were two back-to-back cases where everyone looked at what he said and drew a completely different conclusion than I did. The first instance was the Birthright Citizenship question, where the “Yeah” was followed by what looked to me like an evasion of the question and a desire to speak in generalities rather than answer the question asked. But everyone reported it as “Scott Walker wants to repeal the 14th Amendment.” And I couldn’t say otherwise[1], because as much as a lot of people want to pretend otherwise a desire to repeal birthright citizenship is, by any reading of popular opinion, a political mainstream opinion. It’s one I disagree with and more than that it’s a position that would make me less likely to vote for a person who supports it, but it wouldn’t have surprised me that it was Walker’s position. He later said it wasn’t.

But however non-surprising I might have found that position to be, the notion that Walker would even rhetorically support a Canadian Wall was not credible to me and a quick reading of what was said demonstrated it as much. Really, Walker’s argument didn’t even make sense on his critics’ own terms. He hates Mexicans so much he wants to build a wall to keep out Canadians? That’s a weird pander. If he had stuck by it, I would have guessed it would have had more to do with not wanting to seem racist by shrugging and saying “Sure, let’s keep out white people, too, because border and I’m not racist.” But he didn’t stick by the comment and it once again seemed to me there was some midwestern agreeableness going on along with saying “Yeah” at the top. From the Daily Beast article:

“[P]art of this may be due to Walker’s unfortunate verbal tic where he answers questions with what appears to be an affirmative before giving his intended answer,” Sykes wrote on Right Wisconsin. “If a reporter approached him at the Paducah County Fair and asked Walker if he supported a federal plan to beat baby whales to death with the bodies of baby whales, Walker might reply, ‘Yeah…. But what we should focus on is returning power to the states and the …’”

Sykes should know. He’s one of the single most powerful conservative voices in the Badger State, and estimates he’s interviewed Walker hundreds of times since his early days in the State Assembly.

“We joke about it all the time,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s almost like a parlor game: What did you get him to say yes to, initially? Anything!”

And perhaps this is why I ended up coming a bit to Walker’s defense. It wasn’t because I liked the candidate. If I an open to his getting the nomination it’s basically by figuring he will lose and it would be better for the party for him to lose than Jeb to lose. Honestly, Michael Drew’s comments about Walker being out of his depth in the national stage have rung true and I find myself not having a whole lot of reason to think about him, much less fear him. But I actually find myself coming to his defense because… well, I have a similar verbal tic.

I, too, say “Yeah” or “Yes” or even “sure” before saying what I intend to say which can completely contradict what I just said “Yeah” to. It’s less a verbal stall – though it may be that a little – and more an acknowledgement of polite “I gotcha.” I have actually been known to say “Yeah, no I don’t agree with that at all.” Some people want to build a wall to block off Canadians? “Yeah, [let me tell you what I think about that].” Now, in my case, I might say something to the effect of “Yeah, I understand that some people are really considered about border security to the north, but while I don’t even believe a wall blocking off Mexico is an especially good idea I believe it’s a really bad one to try to block off Canada.”

That’s not what Walker did, of course. Walker avoided answering the question, which added undue importance to the verbal tic. Of course, Walker is a politician and he has to be careful in what he says and so it’s understandable that he would fall into a trap I’d be at least modestly more likely to clear. But… he’s a politician, and this is definitely exposing a weakness of his. Journalists may be aching to get him to agree to just about anything to get a good story (rather than accurately assess his views), but at some point Walker himself needs to account for that. He’s not. And while I think he’s getting too much criticism for holding views that it seems apparent he doesn’t affirmatively hold, that itself should give any waffling Republican primary voter pause. Because it’s not going to magically go away if he secures the nomination.

[1] Except to say that “Terminating birthright citizenship” is not the same thing as “Repealing the 14th Amendment.” That this was the accepted framing is, like the notion that ending birthright citizenship is an outrageous position, an indication of a disconnect between popular opinion and people with a license to actually be heard.

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Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter. ...more →

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34 thoughts on “Getting To Yes

  1. Yeah, Walker comes off times like a babblng 16 year old who doesn’t know the answer to a question. I’ve seen a couple clips of him looking just like the worst public speaker ever. And other times he just really avoids answering questions directly. But he really hates unions, but does he ever hate them. As you say if this his habit and he knows it yet keep getting wapped for it then it’s his fault.

    General: President Walker, should we launch this strike?
    Walker: Yeah….blah blah

    strikes launches

    Walker: wait i didn’t tell you to do that.

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      • “Yeah” certainly has far more possible inflections and implications than the more clipped, definitive “yes” does. An emphatic “Yeah!” means enthusiastic assent. “Yeah”, drawn out, may either mean assent; reluctant assent with some insouciance or sass thrown back; or even an implied questioning of a request or question’s embedded assumptions, as a sarcastic prelude to answering “no” (“Yeah….that’s just not going to happen.”)

        There are sorrowful “yeah”‘s, sympathetic “yeah”‘s. You could write a whole book on the varied uses of “yeah” in rock songs. It’s apparently also a good word to use in meetings (perhaps due to the flexible word’s inherent ambiguity, it fosters the impression of consensus? If so, one can see why a politician would want to use it a lot.)

        But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. – Matthew 5:37, KJV

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          • Gramatically-correct “Won’t Get Fooled Again” would be a very different song.

            Also, I read this a while back and it stuck with me (it would, since Richard Butler is one of my favorite rock singers), and it mentions that Beatles song too:

            The other word that nobody sings quite like Butler is “Yeah”. In pop “yeah” is often used as a nonsense syllable, but there’s a linguistics dissertation to be written, if it hasn’t already been done, about the difference between “yeah” and “yes”, and Butler’s rendition of “yeah” would merit a chapter to itself. “Yes” accepts, “yeah” only acknowledges. “Yes” says that things are proceeding as expected, and “yeah” confirms that they are not (taking the function, sometimes, of the French “si”, yes when the expected answer is no). “Yeah” admits irony and sarcasm. This might be generational, but “yeah”, because of its informality, also seems to me to be harder to fake; “yes” is something you say, “yeah” is something you feel, and it’s easier to say something you don’t mean than it is to feel it. When the Beatles sing “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”, the “yeah”s are part of the social self-image they shared with (and described for) their audience. When Richard Butler sings “yeah, yeah, yeah”, it is the abstract of a minor eternity of inner turmoil.

            Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a link to one of my favorite Clean tracks, which seems determined to maximize, if not satirize, the ultimate trio of sometimes-ambiguous affirmations in rock and life: “O.K.”, “Alright”, and “Oh yeah”.


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          • I was a Flower of the mountain yeah when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yeah and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yeah and then he asked me would I yeah to say yeah my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yeah and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yeah and his heart was going like mad and yeah I said yeah I will Yeah.

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  2. I get it, but you need to have, “Yeah, no” (like in your headline here) in your repertoire if this is your thing. (Even if you’re from the Midwest.) Like, for the times they’re asking on camera if building a wall on the U.S.-Canada border seems like a good idea. You’ve got to be able to get that “No” out there promptly after your throat-clearing Yeah.

    Added bonus: you sound a bit more with-it verbally, as “Yeah, no” is a relatively recent innovation in slightly condescending political snark (is that redundant?).

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  3. Garrison Keillor had a sketch about two Minnesotans arguing, where each one always began with “Yeah, but…”. If they’d been having a formal debate, it would have consisted entirely of yeahbuttal.

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