Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fighting Words

In a speech he gave to the Conservative Political Action, Mitt Romney was defending his record as redder than red. "I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor," he said, adding the modifier "severely" to his prepared remarks. While it's not his official campaign slogan (that would be "Believe in America"), and it probably wouldn't play well in the general election, you have to admit that "Severely Conservative Republican" isn't a bad catch phrase in the current how-far-can-you run-to-the-right Republican primary.

It was New York Governor Mario Cuomo who famously said that while you govern in prose, you campaign in poetry. Indeed, having a catchy slogan to put on bumper stickers and buttons is almost as important has having a non-affiliated Super PAC or spiffy looking campaign bus. The idea is to reduce all that you believe in and stand for to a short pithy phrase that will draw voters in and make them pull the lever for you. It's completely beside the point as to whether or not the phrase is true or deliverable or bears any relation to reality: that's the prose part, and it comes later if you win. (For reference, see the Wikipedia entry under "Obama, Barack: Yes, We Can!")

There are scores of examples that worked and worked well. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln went with "Don't Swap Horses in the Middle of the Stream," while Wilson summed up his biggest accomplishment in 1916 with, "He Kept Us Out of War." George H.W. Bush's "Kinder, Gentler, Nation" captured what we wanted to be, while Hoover's "A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage" perfectly encapsulated the pre-depression mindset. Ronald Regan had two of the best, with his 1980, "Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?" and his follow-up of "It's Morning Again in America." The first drew a sharp distinction to Jimmy Carter, while the second neatly sidestepped any discussion of his first four years and made it about the next. (The more accurate formulation of "It's Noon in America" doesn't have quite the same snap.)

The problem is that there are only so many ways to arrange the key words needed to make a slogan that works. It has to be positive, personal and declarative, specific enough to highlight the differences with any others, while vague enough to attract voters not completely in step with your point of view. It's like a game of patriotic Mad Libs, where all you get is "America," and have to add two verbs and a noun.

Romney got boxed in early on when he tried to push "Keep America American," which someone pointed out was a central theme of Ku Klux Klan publications in the 1920s. Rick Santorum had his variation in "Let America Be America Again," until it was discovered that the language echoed the words of pro-union Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. In that vein, you have admire Ross Perot. While he wasn't successful, his slogan had no chance of being compromised: "Ross for Boss."

So they try and try until they find a winner. Newt Gingrich started out with "Win the Future." But that didn't quite nail it, so he flirted with "A 21st Century Contract with America." But too many don't remember the 20th century version, so he road tested "Leadership Now." And he's also giving a spin to "Rebuilding the America We Love." Unfortunately, his own personal history has prompted any number of suggestions from others, including "Newt Gingrich: A New Era of Openness (OK with Callista)," "Newt Gingrich: Wife #3, Country #1" and my personal favorite "Gingrich '12: Traditional Values, Unless Your Name Rhymes with ‘Flute.'" However, considering the way things are going in Washington, perhaps the best suggestion might be "Newt Gingrich: The Last Time He Was in Government, They Still Kinda Did Stuff."

As of this writing, President Obama is still looking for that "Hope and Change" magic, though there's nothing official. As Richard Stevenson writes in The New York Times, the ones that he'd like to use aren't subtle enough: "It Would Have Been Worse Without Me," "By Comparison to the Other Guys I Look Pretty Good" and the very truthful "Change Takes More Than One Term." But since the one thing that has stayed high is his personal favorability ratings, perhaps he'd be best to take a page from Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower didn't focus on policies, programs, the past or the future. He made it all about him, and won with the very simple "I Like Ike."


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never put a bumper sticker on his car. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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