Last night’s back and forth between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should remind all of us the difficulty of coming up with meaningful slogans for a successful presidential campaign.
Thanks to Mr. Trump, “Make America Great Again” will likely enter future history textbooks as one of the prominent slogans of the 2016 campaign whether or not he emerges as the actual Republican nominee. In her victory speech last night, Hillary Clinton attempted to play off Trump’s slogan by saying, “We know we’ve got work to do. It’s not make America great again. America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole . . . . “
Trump’s response? “Make America whole? What is that?”
He has a point. Whatever you might think of Trump’s slogan, Hillary’s response really falls flat. Donald Trump has a way of inducing such campaign disasters. Remember “Jeb Can Fix It?” Yeah, that didn’t go so well either.
In Hillary Clinton’s case, even if it was a good message she’s entirely the wrong messenger to deliver it. First, as Trump points out, she’s been around forever in political years. He added that “[i]f she hasn’t straightened it out by now, she’s not going to straighten it out in the next four years.”
Hillary Clinton is a divisive character in American politics today. Through the remainder of this campaign, if she’s going to ever bring up making America whole again, she should only do it if she decides to actually leave the race for some reason. In fact, she could use it as the reason for making her exit. Something like, “I realize that the only way to make America whole again is for politicians like me who’ve helped make this mess to move on.” Something like that might work.
Mrs. Clinton has a habit of trying to play off her opponent’s words to make her own political point, and it never works out for her. For example, in 2008, Barack Obama used “Change You Can Believe In” to excite his base. Hillary countered with “The Strength and Experience to Bring Real Change.”
See the pattern?
Granted, coming up with an effective campaign slogan or message is never easy. It’s more likely that a candidate will pick a dud than come up with something people want to slap on the bumper of their cars or wear emblazoned across their chest.
In some cases it’s just plain goofy. Jimmy Carter’s “Not Just Peanuts” in 1976 probably wasn’t what pushed him across the finish line. When Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential campaign was throwing around campaign slogans, was “Roosevelt for Ex-President” really the best anyone could come up with to inspire voters to pull the Republican lever?
In a year when there is a lot of mudslinging going on, it’s interesting that we haven’t yet seen anything like James G. Blaine’s carriage sticker “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa” which he used to attack Grover Cleveland and his alleged illegitimate child. It did, however, prompt Cleveland’s response when he won the election over Blaine, “Gone to the White House . . . ha . . . ha. . . ha!”
A few slogans just don’t pass muster and are downright embarrassing as the years pass. Al Smith opposed Prohibition in 1928 and thought his slogan would inspire like-minded voters to follow him. Still, campaign material with his slogan (“Vote for Al Smith and Make Your Wet Dreams Come True”) isn’t likely to make it in a Smithsonian exhibit anytime soon at least not without a strong disclaimer that it is suitable for mature audiences only.
Finally, some slogans just don’t hold up in retrospect. Woodrow Wilson won in 1916 with the promise “He Kept Us Out of War.” Shortly after his election, Wilson announced that he’d take the country into World War I in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”
For Hillary Clinton, probably the most telling slogan comes out of her husband’s 1996 campaign which was “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.” What does it say about her husband’s administration that not that long after he left office the country is effectively falling apart and in her opinion needs to be put back together again?
Given all this, it certainly looks like she should retire the “make America whole again” message immediately.
While that might have been a perfectly great slogan for Abraham Lincoln in his bid for reelection in 1864, it certainly won’t work for Hillary Clinton in 2016.