The More Things Stay the Same

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The candidates of 2008 seem to agree about one thing -- we need a change. Sen. Barack Obama is campaigning for "Change We Can Believe In," having defeated John Edwards, who cried "Join the Campaign to Change America," and Hillary Clinton, who insisted that she was "Ready for Change." Now, Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain, has warned "the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second crowd: Change is coming."

A promise to bring about "change" seems to be the most obvious campaign pledge: After all, most presidential campaigns are romantic quests promising salvation. And post-1960s Democrats have spoken of comprehensive change with particular zeal.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter rode a wave of Watergate disgust, promising "A Leader, for a Change." Eight years later, fighting Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984, Walter Mondale lost while proclaiming that "America Needs a Change." In an early example of the GOP shrewdly co-opting Democratic strategies, a retired Reagan gave his successor George H.W. Bush the slogan "We Are the Change" in 1988 and again in 1992. In the latter year, however, more Americans believed Bill Clinton, who proclaimed: "It's Time to Change America."

Before the 1960s, the word change was less popular -- and slogans were less existential. One of the most famous 19th-century slogans brusquely demanded, "Turn the Rascals Out," as reformers opposed Ulysses S. Grant's corrupt administration in 1872. Pro-administration Republicans simply responded: "Grant Us Another Term." During Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, the slogan was more subtle, but still less global than today. In 1936, supporters of Kansas governor Alfred M. Landon opposed FDR's New Deal by shouting, "Let's Get Another Deck." Successful insurgents understand that calls to change work best when there's hope for improvement. In 1960, John F. Kennedy rejected the complacent Eisenhower years, vowing, "We Can Do Better."

Of course, some presidents have resisted calls for change. Fighting for reelection while fighting the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln modestly told his fellow Republicans in 1864 that it was "Not best to swap horses while crossing the river" of fraternal conflict. The phrase caught on as the incumbent's rallying cry: "Don't swap horses in midstream." In 1900, William McKinley's reelection plea, "Let Well Enough Alone," was even less grandiose. Nevertheless, from 1896 to 1900, McKinley boosted his electoral and popular vote totals, suggesting that you don't always need a good slogan to secure a great victory.

-- Gil Troy, author of "See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate"

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