With presidential campaign season now among us, that means one thing: words, words, words.
Over the next two years, we will be hearing speech after speech, mostly from the major Democratic contenders, on every subject under the sun. And if what we’ve seen so far is an indication of what’s to come, then Americans are in for a long, cliche-filled winter.
The opening remarks of Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand and other candidates have all traveled over the same well-worn ground — America’s values are under attack, President Trump’s policy decisions are grave, immoral abuses, and the salve for all our wounds remains progressive measures like Medicare For All and tuition-free college.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this particular rhetorical framing. But it doesn’t make for the kind of visionary leadership that thrills the public and will take America into a fresh, glorious chapter. That’s because it is fundamentally boring, exactly the kind of message we would expect from liberal politicians.
Compare that style to President Trump’s bold way of communicating. Even though I find the president’s political vision gross and wrong for the country, he knows how to speak in a way that catches people’s attention, wielding words like hammers to beat down the opposition and present himself as a man of strength and confidence.
Build the Wall. Drain the Swamp. Make America Great Again. Only I can fix it.
Trump’s bold phraseology jumps off the page, placed next to the consultant-driven language that we see in the Democratic field.
Which is why progressives need to find a way to campaign in a way that’s as eye-catching as the president’s own approach. What does such a plan of attack look like? First, it would admit that in certain key ways Trump is right.
Now no Democrat should say this explicitly — in a political campaign, you gain nothing from acknowledging the wisdom of an opponent — but the candidates would be wise to steal some of the president’s most sensible issues, like the need for strong action on China’s trade abuses, Islamic terrorism, and securing the border.
Grassroots progressives might howl in protest at any policy or piece of rhetoric that resembles Trump, but that matters little; on both sides, the purist, politically active base is a small portion of the entire electorate.
By contrast, most Americans, no matter their party, are independent thinkers who acknowledge the wisdom in each party. Polls show we simultaneously favor work requirements for welfare recipients and a vast expansion of the safety net, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and new employer sanctions for businesses that hire undocumented workers.
A candidate who embodied those contradictions would present a strong threat to President Trump’s re-election. Our most clever leaders have always operated in this vein. One thinks of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, where he argued for a large increase in Cold War defense spending and strong liberal investments to get America moving again.
Or more recently the candidacy of George W. Bush with its trumpeting of compassionate conservatism, an acknowledgement that Americans hungered for Republican leadership that didn’t contain the meanness of the hard right.
Even President Trump’s 2016 campaign contained an iconoclastic mix of the left and the right, as he combined calls for strong borders and low taxes with a pledge to protect Medicare, Social Security, and fight for working class Americans.
A savvy statesman takes from the best of both sides, while still adhering to the core principles of his party. People trust that sort of a politician, as they appear fresh and independent and not like well-oiled partisan puppets. A Republican who is conservative from top to bottom comes off as all head and no heart, cold, unfeeling, like the boss at work everyone hates.
Similarly a progressive who reflexively seeks the compassionate response on every issue, even when toughness is warranted, is equally repellent. You may want such a fellow as your nurse after back surgery, but it is best to keep him 100 miles away from the Oval Office.
My message to the current Democratic field is simple: Be courageous enough to make your campaigns something new. Offer up leadership that is fresh and exciting, instead of the same liberal platitudes.
Have the humility to recognize that in every historical moment, each side gets certain key questions right. Present policies that show an awareness of this truth, and you will find yourself rewarded with the White House in 2020.
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.