Lame Duck

A friend asks about the usage of lame duck in US politics: does it mean an officeholder in his or her last term, being term-limited or having announced impending retirement or otherwise not up for re-election; or is it restricted to an incumbent having lost an election, who is serving out the remainder of his or her last term before the new officeholder-elect is sworn in?

I have always used the term narrowly, in the second sense. An officeholder becomes a lame duck only after an election is over and their successor has been selected. I suppose I would describe an officeholder as a lame duck during the post-election period even if that person had chosen not to run for re-election, but I wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable doing that, I don’t think. And at any rate, the time frame is between the election and the new person being sworn in: generally November and December. The legislative session during that time is a lame-duck session, which includes both lame-duck legislators and those who will be starting new terms at the beginning of the next session, who are not lame ducks.

I believe I first heard it used more expansively after 1996, at some point during Bill Clinton’s second term, possibly after 1998, but before the 2000 election. I thought it was rude, and incorrect usage, and part of the rhetorical push to dismiss him as ‘irrelevant’ or unpopular or whatever. The previous President to be an incumbent without chance of re-election was Reagan, and I don’t recall hearing him called a lame duck in 1987 or so, but then, I was eighteen years old at the time. I was politically aware-ish, but I could well have missed people calling him a lame duck. And, in fact, the OED has a citation calling Nixon a lame duck in late 1973. Further research indicates that in 1986, a paper by Karen Johnson (The Portrayal of Lame-Duck Presidents by the National Print Media, Presidential Studies Quarterly 16(1), pp. 50-65) a President was considered a lame duck as soon as he (at the time) announced his intention not to run for re-election, or after the midterms of his second (and legally final) term.

And what the OED made clear is that I’ve been using lame duck thinking that it conveyed a narrow technical meaning that is restricted to electoral politics, when in fact the phrase has been used for a long time in a variety of contexts to indicate someone who once had power but is now powerless. It connotes, I think, a permanent loss, so I think early assessments of an officeholder as a lame duck can be premature if not, you know, just wrong. One could have referred to Pablo Sandoval or Matt Kemp, for instance, as a lame duck at one point, and had to eat crow this year.

This is of course at least tangentially related to the use of the word lame as an all-purpose derogation, currently (I hope) deprecated among right-thinking people. I wouldn’t think that lame duck has the same ableist connotations, but perhaps it does, I don’t know.

So. I personally would avoid using lame duck in the general sense (possibly going with wounded duck, which is at this point a more vivid metaphor anyway) and in the political realm use it only in the narrowest November-December sense. But I can no longer think that people using the wider sense are wrong in their usage, alas. That’s all right, they’ll all be wrong about something, sooner or later.


One Response to “Lame Duck”

  1. Jed

    Interesting! I hadn’t really thought before about which of those senses the term is used in. I think I most often see it in the narrow sense, but am not surprised or confused to see it in the broader sense.

    (Hmm—given term limits, could it be said that any US president is a lame duck in the broader sense as soon as they’re first elected? After all, they start out with a guaranteed known no-later-than ending date…)

    Anyway, mostly I’m commenting because I was amused by “That’s all right, they’ll all be wrong about something, sooner or later.” A comforting motto.


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