The latest tussle in the world of political rhetoric is pitting Aristotle and Augustine against political pollsters and a raft of Democratic presidential candidates.




At stake is the notion of "common good," which many Democrats are embracing as a new framework for expressing their vision of broader opportunity and equality.




They see it as an effective way to talk about economic fairness &

and reduce the Republicans' big advantage in the linguistic arms race.




For much of the last decade or so, many Democrats complain, conservative strategists have been running rhetorical circles around Democrats with focus-grouped phrases such as "death tax" and "ownership society" that buttress Republicans' probusiness, free-market views. Meanwhile, Democrats' populist-style attacks on big business during the last two presidential elections &

for instance, by Al Gore and John Kerry &

have come across to many voters as shrill and outmoded.




Based on ancient philosophy and Roman Catholic social teaching, "common good" is becoming a poll-tested mainstay of Democratic rhetoric. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson are using the phrase frequently in stump speeches and position papers.




One little problem: No one agrees on exactly what it means, potentially compromising its effectiveness as a rallying cry for the Democratic Party.




Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, is using it in progressive fashion, to refer to leveling the economic playing field and backing strong unions and universal health care. Sen. Obama of Illinois uses it in a more centrist sense, to mean shared duties and responsibilities, not only among classes but between the two parties. Sen. Clinton of New York uses it in both ways.




As campaign strategists seized on the "common good" as a rhetorical weapon over the last couple of years, the phrase became reduced to "a slogan," complains George Lakoff, a University of California at Berkeley linguist and sometime Democratic adviser who was an early advocate of the message.




The phrase first began to surface on the political scene in 2003 and 2004 as economic inequality and the Iraq invasion helped galvanize fears among progressives that traditional American values were being swamped by a rising tide of selfishness. Seeking a framework for voicing their opposing view, religious progressives turned to the concept of the common good, an ancient idea with roots in Aristotle and Augustine.




"Politics in this election year and beyond should be about an old idea with new power""the common good," reads a statement, published around that time by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that progressive strategists began circulating during the campaign.




"The central question should not be, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' It should be, 'How can we""all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable""be better off in the years ahead?'"




Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical Protestant who then headed John Kerry's religious outreach, says she remembers reading the passage and thinking, "This is it. This is what we're trying to say." She tried but failed to get Kerry to embrace the theme.




Kerry's defeat, with a poor showing among social and religious conservatives, prompted a reconsideration by progressives. They liked the fact that the common-good theme appealed to religious types, but wasn't biblical-sounding, and so would be less likely to put off secular voters. Strategists also thought it sounded broad enough to appeal to moderates as well as liberals. A poll in 2006 by the liberal Center for American Progress showed 68% of Americans strongly agreeing that the "government should be committed to the common good and put the public's interest above the privileges of the few."




The new theme also appeared to have particular appeal for Catholic voters, once a strongly Democratic bloc that has been increasingly up for grabs.




Vanderslice and a partner started a consultancy, Common Good Strategies, in 2005. Candidates who employed them performed well in the 2006 cycle, including Bob Casey, who won an easy victory over Rick Santorum for Senate in Pennsylvania and invoked the theme in a major speech. Another proponent, Tom Perriello, a lawyer and human-rights activist, is building his campaign for Congress in Virginia around the theme this year.




Nailing down exactly what the common good means is proving to be a slippery task. Some liberals behind the original common-good initiative believe the movement's agenda should include specifics like universal health care, affordable broadband access, more public-works jobs, stronger union protections, fairer global-trade rules and tax rules that favor workers over investors.




That is generally the approach that former Sen. Edwards takes. "Universal health care, ending poverty, tax fairness, strong unions, a cleaner environment, better schools""all of these important policies are [part of] the common good," said campaign spokeswoman Colleen Murray. It also involves "taking on the narrow interests that care more about what's good for them than what's good for America," she adds.




Other campaigns have taken the idea in different directions. "Barack Obama uses the phrase 'common good' to express his fundamental belief that all Americans want to get beyond the divisive politics of the last seven years and come together as one country," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "He is running for president because he believes that America needs a president who has the ability to unite this country around a common purpose."




In the 2008 campaign, Clinton has used the theme in both senses.




At a candidate forum on CNN over the summer, a questioner asked how her common-good theme plays out on specific issues like taxes, gun control, health care and energy. It "requires people giving up a little bit of their own turf, in order to create this common ground," Clinton responded. But if necessary, she added, that "means something has to be taken away from some people."




A senior adviser to Clinton says she views the common good primarily as a way to answer the "on your own" tendencies of Bush administration economic policies, which have helped a few do well, and left the majority standing in place. "She's drawn a sharp contrast between the Bush administration's extreme sense of individualism, versus some investment in the common good," the adviser said.




All this frustrates many liberal activists who initially embraced the phrase as a forceful way for Democrats to express moral outrage over the failure of conservative policies.




Too often for Democrats, "the first thing that gets compromised is the moral ground," says Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist. "They don't realize that the moral ground is their major strength."