If watching or reading about the November 4 midterm elections already gave you acid reflux, the next morning’s New York Times could have been stroke inducing: “Did Someone Say ‘2016’? Presidential Contenders Circle” was the headline above an analysis by Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for the paper.
Unwilling to leave bad enough alone, Martin produced sketches of the dozen leading candidates: two Democrats, one Independent and nine Republicans, reminding us that recycling has replaced what used to pass for each party’s political philosophy. Running Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) against Jeb Bush (R) ought to cause mass renunciations of citizenship and a substantial exodus to Canada and Australia. But it won’t. Instead Americans will accept the parties’ official and advertising slogans that have become par since Dwight Eisenhower (R) convinced the country in 1952 that it was “time for a change” and that he would “clean up the mess in Washington.”
The mess in Washington has grown bigger and change has yet to arrive. Since we liked Ike and hoped for the change he dangled before us, presidential candidates have embraced the cry for change. No candidate could run today on the slogan for William McKinley (R) in 1904: “Leave Well Enough Alone.” But there’s a good reason why not. Things have not been going well in the past three decades for a large majority of Americans. Candidates have stopped asking a good question they used to ask: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Instead, they will continue to shout promises of “change” (coupled with the “hope” for it they embody). Jimmy Carter vowed he’d be “A Leader, For a Change” in 1976 but had to settle for his lesser slogan: “Not Just Peanuts.” Eight years later Water Mondale announced that “America Needs a Change,” but his wish fell on citizens’ deaf ears.
In the 1990s the promise worked to get Bill Clinton elected when he marketed himself as being “For People, For a Change,” and that it was, once again, “Time to Change America.” The “change” magic did the trick again for Barack Obama (D) in 2008 with his “Change We Need” and “Change We Can Believe In” campaign. By 2012 the expectation of “change” had been slashed to the desperate cry of “Forward.”
Whatever happened to “change?” In 1910 Henry Adams suggested that “the whole fabric of society will go to wrack if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions.” Just put “change” in place of “reform,” and you’ll see why the grandson of one president and great-grandson of another knew what he was talking about.
What presidential candidates risked employing a slogan free of change only he could bestow on the American people, especially the yearning to be rich too “little people,” the ones President Obama calls “folks”?
Two come to mind. One who was not nominated was Ross Perot (I) in 1992 who campaigned on “Ross for Boss.” That was refreshing if unsuccessful. But the winner came from Richard Nixon (R) who won over the silent majority in 1968 by the simple proclamation that “Nixon’s the One.”
Indisputably, he was, and his breathtakingly honest slogan deserves to be remembered as we prepare for the wave of bull the 2016 campaign promises to drown us in.