Romney: playing the devil with the details?

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From an interview Mitt Romney did with CBS News last week:

Scott Pelley: You're asking the American people to hire you as president of the United States. They'd like to hear some specifics.

Romney: Well, I can tell them specifically what my policy looks like. I will not raise taxes on middle-income folks. I will not lower the share of taxes paid by high-income individuals. And I will make sure that we bring down rates, we limit deductions and exemptions so we can keep the progressivity in the code, and we encourage growth in jobs.

Pelley: And the devil's in the details, though. What are we talking about, the mortgage deduction, the charitable deduction?

Romney: The devil's in the details. The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.

Pelly: You have heard the criticism, I'm sure, that your campaign can be vague about some things. And I wonder if this isn't precisely one of those things?

Romney: It's very much consistent with my experience as a governor which is, if you want to work together with people across the aisle, you lay out your principles and your policy, you work together with them, but you don't hand them a complete document and say, "Here, take this or leave it.".

What is Romney using "the devil's in the details" to mean?

"The devil is in the details" is a relatively new expression, which first turns up in the 1970's. It's a turn on "God is in the details," which is sometimes attributed to Flaubert and is famously associated with Mies van der Rohe.

But the version with "God" offers an aesthetic observation about the importance of technique (it recalls Pope's "True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd/ What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd"). Whereas the "devil" version recommends a cautionary attitude toward sweeping proposals or generalities—roughly, "read the fine print."

FTC Fact Sheet: The Devil’s in the Details. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Read the fine print?” Basically, the fine print has the details (the terms and conditions) of a deal—often important things you should know about.

Verizon's new Share Everything Plans: The devil's in the details. Some insights buried in footnotes could help customers decide (Computerworld)

The Devil's in the Details: It's the little things that make a huge difference when it comes to delivering clicks, calls and visits to your store or website. (Target Marketing Magazine)

Romney's "devil in the details, angels in the policy" version, though, is offered as a justification for not going into detail about his tax plan, as if God sided with the nonspecific. But he has used the expression in its traditional sense in the past:

"…big community celebrations are great fun…" said Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Instead, Romney was spending his time on details, details and details, following the advice of new IOC President Jacques Rogge on a visit to Salt Lake the day before. "The devil is in the details, and we have a mountain of minutiae ahead of us," Romney told reporters Wednesday, marking the day with a news conference. ("Salt Lake still striving for 'squeaky clean' formula," AP, March 5, 1999)

Inconsistent? Perhaps, but as we've so often stressed here at Language Log, language changes, and we're not about to be prescriptivists about it.

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11 Comments »

  1. Lukas said,

    September 29, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

    I don't think Romney is trying to say anything at all. I think he knows perfectly well what "The devil is in the details" means. I suspect he's just answering with random, vaguely associated words (devil – angel, detail – policy) in order to gain time to figure out how to answer the question as noncommittally as possible.

  2. Brett said,

    September 29, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    @Lukas: I agree. He extemporized the "angel" part, hoping to sound witty and thus evade giving substantive details.

  3. M (was L) said,

    September 29, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    I also agree. He knows perfectly well that specificity will attract some voters, drive away others. Vagueness might not do that, unless one is so vague as to seem nebulous.

    I think the interviewer was trying to trap him into choosing one of those two, and he chose to be vague. I leave it to others to decide if he was too vague, or just vague enough. (But I know what I think.)

  4. Aaron Toivo said,

    September 29, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

    I don't think he's using the expression as filler to evade giving details, I think he's using it to excuse the lack of details.

    My understanding of "the devil's in the details" is more general than just warning of a nasty surprise in the fine print, though obviously that's among its common uses. But I also use it to mean things like "the details are going to be a headache to decide on" or "the details are too complex to go into right now" or warning that specifics are going to be tricky or easily misinterpretable.

  5. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 29, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

    Yeah, it's politically ironic that he used this phrase, give its conventional usage — but I understood what he meant when I read this [1]. It's readily comprehensible and the addition makes it a nice, meaningful turn of phrase.

    [1] That the important part is the big picture, which is easy to explain and understand, while the details are difficult to explain or understand. This is obviously an extremely rhetorically convenient argument for a politician to make; but, on the other hand, the "the gist is easy to get, the details and complications are very difficult" is something that is often true. It's certainly very true in science.

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    September 29, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

    I agree with Aaron and Keith; neither of the readings in Geoff's post really quite accords with what I mean–that it's all very well to propose a course of action in principle, but when you get down to making it work in detail, it's going to be difficult.

  7. Jeff Carney said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 12:05 am

    Hah. If a devilish detail is whether I'm getting my mortgage interest deduction or not, please stop being less of an angel. I humbly submit that most of the American middle class would like to know about this particular detail, devilish or not.

  8. Andy Averill said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    @Jeff Carney, I also noticed that when given the opportunity to deny that he was planning to do away with those two deductions, he punted. Although ironically (if I may go even further off-topic) repealing the mortgage deduction would actually be a very progressive move, since it disproportionately benefits the upper class at the expense of lower-income people and seniors.

  9. chris said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

    on the other hand, the "the gist is easy to get, the details and complications are very difficult" is something that is often true. It's certainly very true in science.

    One of the many important differences between science and politics is that the universe doesn't lie on purpose. Also, scientists have an unusually strong social norm against any of *them* lying on purpose, compared to fields like politics and advertising where it's more or less accepted as the nature of the beast.

    This often results in scientists being much less skilled than they think they are at detecting people who *are* lying on purpose — not just politicians, but everything from purveyors of psychic powers and other weirdness to garden-variety con men.

    Professional deceivers are often much better at detecting one another, even if they haven't heard of that specific trick before. (E.g., several stage magicians are also famous debunkers.) They understand the importance of paying some attention to the man behind the curtain, or the devil in the details, or however you choose to describe it. And from that perspective, Romney's quick retreat from the details is a 'tell' — there's something there he doesn't want you to look at.

  10. chris said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    I also noticed that when given the opportunity to deny that he was planning to do away with those two deductions, he punted.

    Note to British readers: this is an idiom based on American football that means approximately "he declined to do a difficult and risky thing" and has nothing to do with being a punter.

  11. Ted said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    You might say he kicked the can down the road.

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