NBC News reports: “Less than two years after Donald Trump promised to make America great, he seemed to declare mission accomplished on Saturday, revealing that his reelection slogan will be ‘Keep America Great!'” Aside from the awkwardness in pronouncing “KAG,” there is a fundamental problem with the message: It’s an enthusiastic embrace of the status quo, leaving to his challenger the role of crusading fixer, of even outsider.
To some extent this is inevitable when a president runs for a second term. Reelections are referenda on presidents’ first term. However, by saying he’s already reached his goal (“making America great”), Trump is telling voters this is as good as it gets. He’s telling them, contrary to many of their own experiences, that the status quo works. That sounds like, well, like Hillary Clinton in 2016. The obvious rejoinder for Democrats or Republican challengers would be “America Can Do Better.” That has two meanings, both of which should help challengers.
First, the condition of the country could certainly improve, the anti-Trump message proclaims. We can always be freer, more prosperous, more united and more respected in the world. More specifically, our infrastructure is still crumbling, our public schools are still lagging our global competitors’ schools, wages are still relatively flat for many Americans, our immigration system is still broken and race relations, most Americans say in polls, are poor. Most Americans would like, for example, a better health-care system (which is what Trump promised) — although they’ve grown more fond of Obamacare with time.
Underscoring this point, the sentiment that the country is heading in the “wrong direction” gets about 57 percent in the RealClearPolitics average while roughly 34 say we are on the right track. Polling for “wrong track” may stay high in an extremely polarized country since opponents of an incumbent president want to go in the other direction while a segment of the incumbent’s base usually think he’s deviated from their ideal. In other words, Americans are rarely satisfied with the status quo — which is why “everything is perfectly fine” campaigns don’t do very well.
The second, less politically conventional meaning of “America Can Do Better” is that we can be better Americans, present a better version of ourselves to the world. Said slightly different, the idea here is that we are better than Trump. Most voters, even some Trump voters, think he makes the country look obnoxious, racist, selfish and ignorant. Here’s the invitation to restore some justified pride in America. We’re not talking about Trump’s empty braggadocio, but rather the gratification one derives from seeing one’s own country stand up for the oppressed, treat immigrants (including refugees) generously, be a model democracy for the world, govern itself rationally with decorum, lift people from poverty and show a multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy can function and prosper.
Challengers to Trump in 202o will find encouragement for this approach in polling showing how many Americans are embarrassed to have Trump as president. In January, the Quinnipiac poll found that 90 percent of voters say the president should be a good role model, but 67 percent don’t think Trump is a good role model for their children.
The poll also found, “Only 27 percent of American voters say they are proud to have Donald Trump as president, while 53 percent say they are embarrassed – a 2-1 negative.” In other words, a catchy campaign message could suggest it would be nice to have a president who doesn’t make you cringe.
One additional benefit of an aspirational message such as “America Can Do Better” is that it does not ask Trump voters to admit they were snookered by a snake oil salesman. It puts the onus on Trump, who has not performed as his supporters would have hoped. Don’t get me wrong — Trump did con a great number of voters, but voters don’t like to admit it, even when the evidence is right in front of their faces. This allows Trump voters to remain convinced Trump was better than Clinton, but we can do better than Trump.
Trump’s weakness (one of them) is his gigantic ego, which never permits him to accept blame, error or imperfection in himself. At bottom, this is a hopeful, optimistic country which is why — you got it — we can do better.
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