September 12, 2019
The history lesson 2020 Democrats can't afford to ignoreRoundup
tags: Democrats, 2020
American history professor at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Here is where history can help. By studying the campaign messaging and strategies from prior presidential elections, the Democrats can help to clarify what has worked well and what has failed miserably in the past. As it turns out, the history of the Democratic Party is chock full of examples of both.
During the Great Depression, the Democrats seized power under the charismatic leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the election of 1932, Roosevelt ran less against the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, than he did for a program of visionary transformation of America. During the campaign, Hoover attempted to brand Roosevelt as a radical; rather than issuing a direct rebuttal to these attacks, FDR instead rejected the idea that the ongoing economic downturn could not be corrected. This did not prevent Roosevelt from drawing a contrast between his policy ideas and those of the incumbent: "Here is the difference between the President and myself," he declared, "I go on to pledge action to make things better."
Yet once more, also in 2008, the Democrats chose a candidate who espoused "Hope" and "Change We Can Believe In." The country responded by overwhelmingly electing Barack Obama as the nation's first African American president. The electoral backlash of the 2010 midterms limited the party's vision once again and foretold some aspects of the rise of Donald Trump. In 2016, "I'm With Her" was not a strong enough vision for America's future to counter the more hardline message of "Make America Great Again."
Whoever emerges as the Democratic candidate in 2020 would instead do well to remember the words of FDR, who as a candidate himself declared at a 1932 commencement speech: "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."
The Democrats have been at their best when they lead change from an inclusive and bold vision for the future, one not predicated on defeating the current occupant of the Oval Office. They should look, as FDR once said, to try, rather than simply to oppose.
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