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Political Conventions - Put on a Happy Face

Political Conventions - Put on a Happy Face

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Published by Allan Bonner

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Published by: Allan Bonner on Jan 23, 2012
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Put on a Happy Face
On occasion,the electorate may need some tough messages,but the political reality is that people want tovote for a positive candidate with a positive message.Wealso want to believe that the future will be better than the past.Consider the examples below.
 While it is true that voters throw governments out more than they electthem, it is also true that they vote for positive messages. Even if wehate “the other guys,” we still need a reason to believe that times willbe better with the people who get our votes. When President W.H. Taftmocked Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt and activist government inthe 1912 campaign, he said “A National Government cannot creategood times... It cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or thecrops to grow.” The president reaped only 23 percent of the popularvote and eight electoral votes. Taft was in the rare position of running against two formidable opponents, but the speech didn’t help.Formidable speaker and “egghead” Adlai Stevenson tried a little toughlove in 1952. He said “Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tellthem the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions...” He was not asuccessful politician, winning only one of his campaigns—for governorof Illinois. And then there’s Kennedy. In the same way as Hoover called for areturn to “normalcy” after World War I, Kennedy could have done thesame after World War II and Korea. He could also have gone on abouttechnological progress and the promises of the modern world. But heattacked and asked: he attacked the boring 1950s American society and asked for sacrifices from voters. In fact, he said his “New Frontier ...holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”Hemocked those who promised a golden future” and hectored theelectorate by saying “too many Americans have lost their way, their willand their sense of historic purpose.” The reason why this workedin a squeaker election was that the stakes were high in the Cold War.Moreover, Kennedy’s charm and wit tempered his tough-love message.Barry Goldwater was not a happy man, but he was a happy warrior in1964. He pointed out Democratic failures at the Bay of Pigs, in Laosand Viet Nam and at the Berlin Wall. He criticized “rules without
responsibility and regimentation without recourse” and the “bulliesand marauders” who roamed the streets.Showing the same prescience that Winston Churchill showed about theEuropean Union in the 1940s, Goldwater said he could “see a day whenall the Americas ... will be linked in a mighty ... a rising tide of prosper-ity and interdependence.” I don’t recall the Arizona Senator getting any credit years later for the North American Free Trade Agreement orsimilar deals in South America.Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, made while he was president, was astark contrast to Ronald Reagan’s sunny outlook on America’s capabili-ties, and Carter paid the price.Mario Cuomo found out that it was hard to criticize Ronald Reaganin1984. He asked the electorate to “look past the glitter, beyond theshowmanship” and “to separate the salesman from the produce.”Itdidnt work. People liked Reagan, and fully half the population washappy with his policies. Then Cuomo rubbed Americas nose initsproblems, speaking of the “elderly people who tremble in the base-ments ... people who sleep in the city streets ... ghettos where thou-sands of young people ... give their lives away to drug dealers.” America didntwant to focus on the negative and returned Reagan forfour more years.Nor did the electorate in 1984 want to hear Jesse Jackson say that“InDetroit ... babies are dying at the same rate as in Honduras, themost underprivileged nation in our hemisphere.”One presidential candidate who embodied the positive and the possi-ble as much as FDR, Kennedy and Reagan is Bill Clinton, whose 1992speech was called “I still Believe in a Place Called Hope.”
The theme of the new is important to America. As in Canada with thefur trade, in 19
century America an enterprising young person couldalways run west or into the woods to start a new life. For generations inboth countries, people with get-up-and-go and a bit of luck could fire agun, stick a shovel in the ground, cast a fishing net or swing an axe andobtain riches beyond their wildest dreams. This lasted for about threehundred years—in some remote places, into the 1950s.This desire to reinvent our life situation, and even reinvent ourselves,creeps into political speeches. After the turn of the 20
century, whenthe frontier had begun to close, Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalismand Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom meant activist government(ofdifferent sorts) to improve the human condition. This may haveprovided a substitute for the individual’s ability to move west, or theopportunity of a new industry to improve personal conditions.
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