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There was the phrase “the safety net in the coffin” in reference to Mr. Paul Ryan, running mate of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Maureen Dowd’s article, titled “Cruel conservatives throw a masquerade ball” in New York Times (September 1 issue). It reads:

As the writer Dermot McIvor notes, Ryan has “the so sincere, so phony air of a gloomy Irish undertaker standing outside the funeral parlor where you’ve come to plant your mother, shaking his head consolingly and giving you that firm two-handed Irish handshake.” Except with Ryan, it’s the safety net in the coffin.

I thought “the safety net in the coffin” a weird, but amusing combination of a positive word – safety net, and an uncomfortable word – coffin, but I don’t understand what it implies.

Why on the earth, a coffin requires the safety net inside it? To hold the corpse gently and warmly? It’s impossible.

Does it describe Mr. Ryan’s disguised harshness and indifference to the poor and illegal immigrants under the cloak of a sincere visage and consoling air?

What does “Except with Ryan, it’s the safety net in the coffin” exactly mean? Why is it “Except with Ryan”?

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    It's the same as an "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff". It just means something that could have been useful, if it had not occurred far too late.
    – user16269
    Sep 2, 2012 at 23:14
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    @DavidWallace I think that's an answer rather than a comment.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 2, 2012 at 23:33
  • I must say we are getting as rich new seam of phrases and insults this time around. With the last incumbent we only got "nukular"
    – mgb
    Sep 3, 2012 at 2:08
  • "Paul Ryan, running mate of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Maureen Dowd’s article,”. Ryan is actually running for VP in the USA, not in Dowd's article. Here's an edit for the first sentence: "In her September 1 Time magazine article, 'Cruel conservatives throw a masquerade ball,' Maureen Dowd pinned the phrase 'the safety net in the coffin' to the tail of Paul Ryan, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's running mate".
    – user21497
    Sep 3, 2012 at 4:07

3 Answers 3

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The sentence could be expanded this way:

Except that with Ryan (unlike with the gloomy Irish undertaker), what's in the coffin is the social safety net (rather than your mother).

(The social "safety net" being government entitlement programs for the elderly, poor, and disabled: Medicare, Social Security, Welfare, Medicaid, and so on. Actually, Wikipedia says it only includes the programs for the poor, but I'm pretty sure that Medicare and Social Security are frequently included in the "safety net" as well.)


Edited to add: To make this a bit more explicit — there is no phrase "the safety net in the coffin". This is a sort of cleft sentence; "it's the safety net [that's] in the coffin" means roughly "the safety net is in the coffin" or "the safety net is what's in the coffin" or "what's in the coffin is the safety net".

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    Ryan has been strongy criticized by more liberal analysts as seeking to vitiate, through his budget cutting approach, many social benefit programs in general, and Medicare in particular.
    – bib
    Sep 2, 2012 at 23:57
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    @simchona: I know that @downvoter has no special behavior in the software, and that downvoters are not required to give a reason; but I don't see why I shouldn't ask for one. Downvoters should provide a reason, or an otherwise constructive comment (unless, of course, someone else has already given the reason or left the comment).
    – ruakh
    Sep 3, 2012 at 1:31
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    @simchona: Since when was it "site policy" to discourage users from asking downvoters to give an explanation? Sep 3, 2012 at 1:32
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    @bib: completely off-topic. We are discussing linguistics here, not politics.
    – vsz
    Sep 3, 2012 at 3:16
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    @vsz The answer this comment is attached to explains the wording (I think well) and the comment was intended to further explain the reasoning behind this wording, not to advocate a political point of view. I though about adding my political point of view in parentheses, but refrained.
    – bib
    Sep 3, 2012 at 14:12
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The context for Maureen Dowd's use of 'the safety net in the coffin' leads me to believe that what she means, when paraphrased and explicitly spelled out, is:

"But in the case of Ryan — by contrast with the previously-mentioned unctuous Irish undertaker — it’s the safety net that he has laid in the coffin, not your mother".

In other words, despite Ryan's assumed air of compassionate concern, his stance is entirely hypocritical: in practice, he seeks to cripple or nullify the effectiveness of the kind of safety-net programme he is pretending to champion.

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What does “Safety net in the coffin” mean?

There is no point in having a safety net in a coffin because the person is already dead.

I have not read the article and there is no reference to it. However I would assume that the writer thought that Mitt Romney is already 'dead' as a candidate. In other words, he will not win.

If the main candidate is unable to win, then it does not really matter how good his running mate is.

Arguably Paul Ryan is a safe candidate - the expression 'safe pair of hands' is often used in this context.

The expression 'dead men walking' is sometimes used to describe people who continue to function long after the reason for their existence has finished.

To describe Mitt Romney as 'dead' or as a 'dead man walking' this early in the campaign is a very antagonistic comment.

I would think that all the references to an Irish funeral are because 'Ryan' is an Irish family name.


There is an article on 'the article' in the'The New York Times' Sunday Review

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/02/opinion/sunday/dowd-cruel-conservatives-throw-a-masquerade-ball.html?pagewanted=all

As the writer Dermot McEvoy notes, Ryan has “the so sincere, so phony air of a gloomy Irish undertaker standing outside the funeral parlor where you’ve come to plant your mother, shaking his head consolingly and giving you that firm two-handed Irish handshake.”

Except with Ryan, it’s the safety net in the coffin. ...........................................................

Given the president’s lackluster performance and the listless economy, Romney should be killing it. But he’s an odd duck running with a dissimulating striver.

Romney could be described as a 'dead man walking'.

Dead man walking 109 up, 14 down

An employee who is certain to be fired in the near future.

I pay no attention to my boss anymore; he's a dead man walking.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Dead%20man%20walking

'Duck' is also a reference to a 'loser'.

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    The article is in 'The New York Times' Sunday Review (not 'Time Magazine').nytimes.com/2012/09/02/opinion/sunday/… Sep 3, 2012 at 2:47
  • My apology. It was due to my lapse of memory. Maureen Dowd who provides me a trove of seeds for posting in this site is a New York Times columnist, who is unlikely to have written for Time magazine. I corrected the misquote in the question. Sep 3, 2012 at 5:24
  • The original article that Maureen Dowd picked up on was written by Dermot McEvoy. They both sound like Irish or Scottish names. O'Dowd is the surname of 'Boy George'. iamboygeorge.com Sep 3, 2012 at 11:13

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