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A Slogan We Can Believe In

July 02, 2008

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In case Barack Obama (or anyone else) cares to listen, I have a winning slogan for him. So far, his campaign themes—“Hope” and “Change you can believe in”—have alluded to his inspiring biography and personal wonderfulness. Obama, these slogans suggest, will uplift Americans to a higher, happier and more harmonious plane of existence. As “model-heiress” and Obama supporter Lydia Shaw writes in her column for Page Six magazine, she supports the candidate “who focuses on healing the rifts in this country” and who will “work towards a greater America.”

“Hope” and “Change you can believe in” may have enthralled the Democrats—evidently hungry for charismatic authority—but they may not sway the general electorate. As Steve Sailer has tirelessly pointed out, Obama’s own words and career contradict his messianic image in nearly every detail. Obama, being both human and a politician, may struggle to win an election that turns on whether he is pure enough to redeem us all.

Instead, Obama’s slogan should remind voters of George Bush and the hated Republicans. I recommend “A Return to Normalcy.” The much-reviled slogan of Warren Harding’s winning 1920 campaign, it has all the advantages now that it had then.

First, it promises an end to an “abnormal” period of international adventuring. In 1920, this adventuring included America’s entry into the Great War and the president’s Fourteen Points monomania. In 2008, it includes America’s occupation of Iraq and the government’s saber-rattling against Iran.

Second, it promises no more dubious public relations campaigns to drum up support for war. In 1920, the president had exaggerated German brutality so as to convince Americans of the righteousness of declaring war against the Kaiser. Today’s president selected the most salable rationale for invading Iraq and then exaggerated the intelligence underlying it.

Third, it promises no more defiant idealism to justify the president’s policies. In 1920, the president had waged a “war to end all wars” that would “make the world safe for democracy.” Today’s president vows to keep occupying foreign lands until we have achieved “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Fourth, it promises no more aggravated security panics. In 1920, the president had created an official commission—the Creel Commission—to inflame anti-German paranoia. Today’s president has advisors who warned of “mushroom clouds” and conflates nearly every unsavory group or nation with the terrorists out to kill Americans on their home soil.

Fifth, it promises no more upsetting of constitutional norms. In 1920, the president had called for and signed legislation—the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act—to punish dissent and had sponsored a vigilante organization—the American Protective League—to persecute anti-war Americans. Today’s president—while not as radical as Woodrow Wilson—has claimed exclusive and virtually unfettered power to wage an elastically-defined “war” that exists more as metaphor than reality.

Sixth, it promises an end to self-inflicted troubles. In 1920, the president could have avoided entry into the Great War and the violent strikes and economics disruptions that ensued.  Today’s president had a choice as to whether to invade Iraq and has adopted policies that have contributed to a sharp rise in oil prices.

Seventh, it promises a return to the tranquility disrupted by the president’s party. In 1920, the president’s predecessor, William Howard Taft, had presided over four relatively unremarkable and prosperous years.  Today’s president’s predecessor, William Jefferson Clinton, presided over eight similarly unremarkable and prosperous years.

Eighth, it echoes the regrets of the media and political elites who initially supported the president.  In 1920, many of the president’s former supporters were chagrined at how easily he had “manufactured consent” for his failed foreign policies.  Walter Lippman, perhaps the most influential, went on to pen a classic critique of democracy, Public Opinion, inspired by his disappointment.  Today, intellectuals who once supported the Iraq invasion (Michael Ignatieff, Fareed Zakaria, Andrew Sullivan) have issued one mea culpa after another.

Ninth, it reminds voters of the current president’s broken promises.  In 1920, the president had campaigned on the slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” only to go on to maneuver the country into it.  Today’s president promised a “humble” foreign policy that would eschew nation-building, only to go on to invade a nation that had not attacked us and to attempt the most desperate nation-building the world has seen.

For all these reasons, voters today, just as they did in 1920, may want no more than an end to the madness of recent years—that is to say, “A Return to Normalcy.” The slogan may work even better in 2008 than it did in 1920. Not only does it exploit McCain’s weaknesses—his self-righteousness, explosive temper, and war-mongering—but it allays any fear that Obama is too exotic or unpredictable.  Nobody questions the judgment of a man who only wants a return to things as they were.

To be sure, if Obama promises “A Return to Normalcy,” McCain will respond that we cannot have “normalcy” with so many Islamo-fascists out to kill us. But Bush’s similar fear-mongering in 2004 won him no more than an additional 1% of the vote (as compared to 2000), despite that 9/11 had happened in the meantime. When McCain warns darkly of another attack if Obama is elected, Obama can promise to protect Americans against their actual enemies and without launching any more unprovoked wars. (If Obama were really shrewd, he would attack McCain’s record on border security, which is the only type of security that actually matters when it comes to anti-American terrorism.) 

Obama probably does not see himself as the candidate of “normalcy.”  He may prefer to see himself as a revolutionary, or at least a reformer.  He may not want to associate with the wise words of Warren Harding that “[t]he world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation.”  He may not be able to stomach the irony of a part-black Democrat beating a white Republican with the same conservative slogan, “A Return to Normalcy,” that a part-black (perhaps) Republican once used to beat a white Democrat.

But the question is not what Obama sees in the mirror but what he needs to do to win. If he earnestly desires victory, Obama should start promising voters what they seem to want—namely, a Return to Normalcy.

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