Feature

The GOP already has the wrong message for 2016

A campaign to "restore" America won't work. Just ask the Democrats.

Let's "restore" America.

This theme has been an undercurrent of Republican politics since the 2008 elections, when President Obama and the Democrats won control of two of the three branches of the U.S. government. It was also an explicit goal of the Tea Party. Now, it looks like Republicans are testing it out as a slogan for the 2016 elections, including the key presidential contest.

If Jeb Bush runs, and wins, the GOP might mean "restore" almost literally, in the dynastic sense. But mostly the message is that the Republican Party is volunteering to clean up the mess those Democrats made, bringing us back to some idyllic time in America (probably the 1980s).

At The Atlantic, Peter Beinart has an entire article dedicated to "the Republican obsession with 'restoring' America," including its many iterations in today's GOP politics. "Restore" appears in the literature — both press releases and upcoming or recent books — from 2016 GOP hopefuls Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee, for example. It is a word that has inherent appeal for those whose politics are conservative, but it also has vaguely sinister overtones for groups that didn't exactly have it better in the good old days.

The Week's resident linguist, Arika Okrent, notes that along with Rubio's upcoming campaign book American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone, fellow presumptive 2016 presidential hopeful Paul Ryan is "Renewing the American Idea" in his book while Rick Santorum is "Recommitting to an America That Works." All those "re-" words are "supposed to call up the idea of freshness and new blood," she muses, "but something about the re- screams 'do over!'"

The problem with the pledge of restoration is that it is inherently backward-looking. Americans may like the idea of America's Golden Age — well, some Americans: "older, straight, Anglo, white, and male voters," in Beinart's analysis — but what they really want to hear is what a party will do to improve their future.

Democrats learned this lesson in 2004. After trying out a host of campaign themes, presidential nominee John Kerry settled on "Let America Be America Again" in late May. It's from a 1938 Langston Hughes poem of the same name, and the message to the electorate was that President George W. Bush had broken America, or at least veered it off the right path, and Kerry would resurrect a more idyllic era (probably the 1990s).

Kerry used that line for the rest of the campaign, at times quoting extensively from the poem, and it didn't work.

This wasn't the only reason that Kerry lost, of course — he was leading Bush for much of the "Let America Be America Again" phase of the campaign, until "Swift Boat" August — but compare Kerry's theme with Obama's 2008 mantras of "Our Moment is Now" and "Hope and Change." Big difference.

In any case, Republicans should already know that "restore America" is a losing theme. Mitt Romney's 2012 super-PAC was the poetically nonsensical Restore Our Future. The first substantive section of the party's 2012 platform was entitled "Restoring the American Dream." And even the GOP's "Great Communicator," Ronald Reagan, couldn't unseat fellow Republican Gerald Ford with his 1976 speech "To Restore America."

Nostalgia is great for selling merchandise and rebooted TV and film franchises, but it's not a very effective political cri de cœur for a national campaign. Republicans have been telling us what they're against for the last six years — Obama — and if they want to be viable in 2016, they need to spend the next two telling us what they envision for the future.

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