"Let the big dog eat"

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Steve Benen, "Jeb Bush’s economic plan: ‘Let the big dog eat’", MSNBC 9/11/2015:

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush unveiled his tax-cut plan this week, and when making the pitch to voters, the former governor has said it’s time “to let the big dog eat.” It’s a phrase Bush is apparently quite fond of.  

He told reporters on Wednesday that “let the big dog eat” is a Florida phrase, though I can report that I’m a Florida native – and I haven’t the foggiest idea what he’s talking about.

This phrase has been widely interpreted to mean "Greed is good — let rich people take and keep as much money as they want", which seem like a remarkably frank, not to say tone deaf, thing for a presidential candidate to say. So I thought I'd take a closer look, and see if I can figure out what in the world Jeb! actually thought he was saying.

One source for "Let the Big Dog Eat" is a slogan used for decades by fans of the Georgia Bulldogs football team. A "Let the Big Dog Eat" bumper sticker is mentioned in a Gaffney NC newpaper from 1983, and many more recent examples can be found:

There's even a song. But Jeb! is from New England and Texas and Florida, not Georgia. And anyhow Georgia football has no obvious connection with tax policy.

It's easy to find examples where "Let the Big Dog Eat" refers to a kind of social-Darwinian laissez faire, which is consistent with the "let rich people keep more of their money" interpretation of Bush's usage. Thus Paul Oberjuerge, "… and in this corner", The San Bernadino County Sun, 8/17/1981:

Or Paul Burka, "Is the Legislature for Sale?", Texas Monthly February 1991:

When legislators and lobbyists plead with him to twist an arm or two on their behalf, he favorite expression is, "I don't have a dog in that fight." A close second is, "If you think you've found someone who gives a damn, you're wrong." Hi final piece of wisdom is,, "Let the big dog eat" — that is, the side that can get the most votes wins.

Or, interestingly, in Joel Achenbach, "How would Trump do on the Narcissistic Personality Quiz?", WaPo 8/3/2015:

I will also note that I’m not sure the quiz fully recognizes the phenomenon that I want to call Situational Narcissism. You know what I’m talking about: You have your moments when you’re a finger-poppin’ badarse and you walk into a room with that Let The Big Dog Eat feeling, but that’s no more the real “you” than the schlumpy person who putters around the back yard thinking, “This tomato patch would bring shame upon the family name were anyone on Earth to give a hoot about our family” and, more pithily, “My gardening sucks.”

This "situational narcissism" interpretation is consistent with themes of the various blues and country songs called "Let the Big Dog Eat", e.g. this one or this one, and DARE's glossing of big dog as "An important, sometimes self-important, person".

But there's one other possible source, which would make Jeb!'s usage less broadly offensive: golfing slang. Thus John Randall Tabor, Homer is Where the Heart Is, 2011:

In the world of golf, the phrase, "Let the big dog eat" means to swing away with the driver. For example, a golfer might say, "Number 12 is a long par five but it is wide open, so you can let the big dog eat."

So conceivably, Jeb!'s message was supposed to be "The tax code is so screwed up (and I'm doing so badly in the polls) that it's time to just let go of all inhibitions and swing as hard as I can with the biggest club in my bag".

No, wait, maybe that wouldn't be a better rhetorical strategy after all.



  1. Jin Defang said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 8:42 am

    I have lived in Florida permanently since 1979 and intermittently from 1970 to '79; have never, ever heard that phrase used. Jeb may regret having said it.

  2. T Hunter said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 8:58 am

    I agree that it's a golf reference– I heard it that way as a boy in NC in the 80's. It's a "go for broke and let it rip" boast, with little more content than "Git 'er done." I guess it's also in the Bush blood, a follow-up to his brother's infamous "Now watch this drive." As for its relation to tax policy, I guess it could imply a new supply-side slogan– "Whatever the tide, make sure the big boats rise first."

  3. GeorgeW said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 9:28 am

    I am a Florida native and don't think it has a Florida origin. I have always thought it was a Georgia expression related to the University of Georgia bulldog mascot.

  4. D.O. said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 9:28 am

    I didn't see any reporting of Mr. Bush using this phrase in context, but from whatever little is reported interpreted it as "this is the boldest tax plan you can imagine and I'm going for it". Essentially, the golf interpretation. BTW, Mr. Bush is not doing that badly in the polls. The 2 leading candidates are not going anywhere and he is leading the pack of real politicians. He might just wait it out like Mitt Romney did.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    Since I needed a footnote for the exclamation point, maybe others do. Jeb Bush's campaign logo has "Jeb!" without his last name. Here's a screen-filling version.

    I could understand "Let the big dog eat" as "I'm the big dog, and my brilliant tax proposal proves it, so the little dogs without any brilliant ideas can just step aside."

    As for the "greed is good" interpretation, if it means, "Let the big dog have his fair share, instead of being persecuted by confiscatory taxes," I'm not sure how tone-deaf that is for Republican voters. But as you can see above, I don't follow politics much, so don't quote me.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    Would it be witty for "Let the big dog eat" to be a dog whistle?

  7. majolo said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

    What exactly does Achenbach mean by "finger-poppin'"? I very much doubt he means what Urban Dictionary thinks it means….

    [(myl) Wordnik gives (among others) these examples:

    We know you were a sharp-dressing, finger-popping kid.

    The finger-popping cool out of basement clubs multiplied into a sonic blast thunder that drowned out those old cotton gin chanteys in the autumn of our beatnik souls.

    "Frank Sinatra is a cowardly, finger-popping lowlife, and I will never make deals with gangster scum."

    With her blend of torch, twang and rockabilly rebellion, the Irish singer shined brightly on old-school favorites such as "How High the Moon" and freshly unspooled originals like the finger-popping "Johnny's Got a Boom Boom."

    So: hip, cool, jazzy, in a mid-20th-C lowlife kind of way…]


  8. Don Sample said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

    To me, it sounds like a non-nerd version of "Let the wookie win." Whatever Bush may have meant, I think that's the interpretation a lot of other people are putting on it.

  9. ngage92 said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    I'm more surprised that a Florida native is using "haven't the foggiest".

  10. maidhc said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 5:54 pm

    majolo: What exactly does Achenbach mean by "finger-poppin'"?

    Maybe like the Jets in "West Side Story"?

    Jerry Friedman: Jeb Bush's campaign logo has "Jeb!" without his last name.

    Actually Jeb are his initials. His full name is John Ellis Bush. So Jeb! is a bit like JFK! or LBJ! It's a nickname he's had for a long time though.

    People call Bill Clinton the Big Dog.

    1. Said to mean someone with room-filling charisma.
    2. "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch."
    3. "Move over little dog, a big ol' dog is movin' in" *(Hank Williams)

    It seems a bit clueless to use an expression like that when you're talking about tax reductions for rich people though. Most of us are little dogs, but we still want to get our turn at the food dish.

  11. Brett said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

    @majolo: "Knuckle-cracking" was what I took it to mean.

  12. bobbie said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

    In Virginia I have heard, "It's raining like a big dog." The longer version ( if you get into a real heavy downpour) is, "It's raining like a big dog pissing on a flat rock".
    So for me, if Jeb uses any "big dog" metaphors, I'm apt to think about him pissing on a rock or on the "little dogs." Folksy, but not charming!

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

    I'm not a golfer, but for me it brought to mind Kevin Costner in Tin Cup (1996). Can't seem to find a clip of him saying it, though.

  14. empty said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 9:11 pm

    The phrase does seem to occur in "The Tin Cup", and maybe it's specifically a golf-related expression?


  15. Graeme said,

    September 13, 2015 @ 7:26 am

    Never mind what the dog eats. Worry about what comes out the other end.

  16. NL7 said,

    September 13, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

    I interpret the phrase alongside the most distinguishing piece of Jeb's platform, which is his goal of 4% GDP growth. It's gimmick-y, but he's trying to project an image of a campaign focused on growth, optimism, and pragmatism – so he touts his 4% goal a lot. So "let the big dog eat" is probably supposed to mean something akin to "swing for the fences."

  17. Pavel B. said,

    September 14, 2015 @ 3:44 am

    Bush's campaign acquires increasingly bizarre resonances here in the Czech Republic, where the phrase "Silnější pes mrdá" (awkward literal translations: "The stronger dog fucks") was popularised some years ago by leaked phone transcripts of corrupt footbal functionaries; moreover, "Jeb!" is an imperative form of the verb "jebat", "to fuck"

  18. Matt Houser said,

    September 15, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

    I spent many years in Georgia and Alabama and recognize this as a Southern phrase that means something akin to: Let the thing that is good at something do what it is good at. So, e.g., Tony Kubek, get out of the way and let the best announcer in the business (Scully) do his thing. Don't try to finesse the shot, just use the driver for what it is made for and rip it. Get rid of the leashes holding the economy back and watch it roar.

    That last sentiment may seem similar to the "greed is good" interpretation, but Jeb surely meant "big dog" to refer to the economy as a whole and not rich people or himself. Feel free to think that's a distinction without a difference, but I would argue that dog won't hunt.

  19. Lane said,

    September 17, 2015 @ 11:41 am

    As a Georgia Bulldogs fan, I immediately and irrevocably associate the phrase with the 'Dawgs, which makes it very surprising to me that the former governor of Florida would be caught using it.

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