Tried-and-true campaign themes
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday July 18, 1996
Former Colorado governor Dick Lamm’s race for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination adds a new thematic dimension to the 1996 presidential campaign. And, make no mistake about it, thematic coherence is important. Reason: Leaders communicate best by telling stories and by linking their messages to one or more of four dominant themes in American culture — including:
- “Rot at the top” — a “hot” idea that the establishment is corrupt and self-serving. This was a favorite theme of American populists, from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long and George Wallace. It is also a dominant theme of Ross Perot, who rails against “corrupt politicians,” and Pat Buchanan, who excoriates big business and “Wall Street Republicans.” Both go after “internationalists,” “globalism,” free trade, “multinationals,” the leaders of “big corporations” and the “liberal media.”
- “Mob at the gate” — another “hot” idea that “outsiders” are endangering cherished economic, cultural or political values. From the “Yellow Peril” posed by the last century’s immigrant Chinese to the “Red Peril” of this century’s Cold War — and the immigrant and “Japan bashing” of this decade, fear of the outsiders’ threat to the American way of life has been a favorite theme of politicians like Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. This is also the dominant theme of Perot and Buchanan, who rail against immigrant hordes coming across the Mexican border “destroying jobs” and “corrupting our culture” and goods produced by Chinese “slave labor” and “Mexicans who make 50 cents an hour.” Lamm’s lifelong concern about population growth (including immigrants) is also expressed in these terms, though it has yet to emerge as a core campaign theme.
- “Community solidarity” — the “cooler” communitarian idea that “we’re all in this together.” From the barn raising of pioneer days to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, community solidarity is a frequently invoked theme by American leaders, though it is not quite as “hot” as the first two. This is emerging as the dominant theme of the Clinton campaign. It is also a dominant theme of Lamm, who is trying to rally Americans to join together to “fix the roof while the sun is shining” — a theme with “barn-raising” overtones that is much more uplifting and inspiring than “tighten your belts.”
- “Triumphant individual” — another “cool” idea about people who overcome, who beat the odds to achieve success. The triumphant individual is the foundation for the famous “rags-to-riches” Horatio Alger stories. It’s a theme that resonates in America’s political and business culture — having been invoked by everyone from Abe Lincoln (log cabin) and Bill Clinton (the man from Hope) to Sam Walton and Lee Iococca. Anyone born to hardship or anyone overcoming great odds is almost certain to invoke this theme to help communicate a message. Lamm’s “David and Goliath” characterization of his “long-shot” struggle with rich and established politicians makes this a dominant early theme of his campaign. This theme has a lot of traction with national media, who like “long shots” and underdogs, especially when they are also interesting. Ross Perot invoked this theme in 1992, but it didn’t take, and he doesn’t use it much this year.
It is nearly impossible to characterize the Bob Dole campaign. There doesn’t seem to be a discernible theme — beyond his status as a true all-America hero with a distinguished record of sacrifice and public service. Unfortunately for him, that will not be enough.