In 1980, Americans voted for a new day.
In 1992, Americans voted for a new direction.
In 2008, Americans voted for hope and change.
In two generations, these are the only 3 times a non-incumbent captured the popular vote. Once America elected the voice of conservatism, once the voice of moderate pragmatism and once the voice of progressivism. Their ideologies were wildly different but they all shared one unique trait.
Despite the fact that they all ran in the midst of Washington dysfunction, economic weakness and challenges overseas, none of their candidacies were defined by these problems. Instead, each chose to rise above them.
Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all campaigned in the language of dreamers. They painted us a picture of what America could become. No campaign can ignore our problems, but powerful campaigns don’t make them the centerpiece, either. From tone to imagery to language, these campaigns made America’s problems a preamble to optimism about the future.
It’s the one American story that wins most easily in November. No matter how bad our politics or our economy or our foreign policy seems, Americans choose leaders who see the future as an opportunity and who make us believe that we can be better tomorrow than we ever have been before. Optimism is king.
Enter the GOP primary candidates in 2016. In analyzing the words and framing used by 7 candidates likely to be stumping in Iowa soon, it wasn't obvious to them. While all have moments where they try to portray optimism and vision, 6 of the 7 frame their mission in language that has more to do with restoring past greatness than looking forward.
Their rhetoric is inherently judgmental and negative even when covered in a veil of positive words and phrases. While they talk about the future, they seem to be betting Americans would rather live their past lives than a new one. It’s a bad bet.
What Reagan, Clinton and Obama all captured was a sense of true optimism, squarely focused on the future. So far, only one candidate in 2016 is telling that kind of story.
The Nostalgist (Mike Huckabee)
Mike Huckabee is the poster child for a bygone era. A good storyteller, he paints the past in living color like a Rockwell painting. His stories about the present are portrayed in black-and-white and the future he paints in apocalyptic gray.
We saw him use the word "new" just once in his speeches: describing "new forms of danger" we face. Optimism for Huckabee is a chance to turn back the clock.
The Defenders (Rand Paul and Ted Cruz)
It is all about defense of revolutionary-era ideals of “freedom,” “liberty” and “justice” for Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. They talk of “saving” the American dream from enemies like foreign jihadists and Washington liberals.
Paul is our Patrick Henry with his "Call to Arms." He wants to forestall the “collapse” of "our once great economy" because "opportunity and hope are slipping away." How will he “go boldly forth?” "[Clutching] the Constitution in one hand, and the Bill of Rights in the other!"
Cruz at least tries to use visionary language. "Imagine" appears 19 times in one speech. But his vision is not of anything new. It’s the same language of defense. Cruz will defend us from big government and taxes. He will defend against invasions of privacy and of foreign enemies. When he says we must come “together to reclaim the promise of America,” it is nothing but the past projected into the future.
The Mechanics (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina)
The Mechanics want action…to fix things currently broken. For them, history is shorter. They focus on the last 50 years and the problems created by the Great Society or modern-day Washington. It’s all about experience, and which of them -- Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or Carly Fiorina– is best suited to reform, restore, or otherwise set right what’s been ruined.
Walker is the "Proven Reformer." In fact, he uses the word "reform" far more than any other candidate. His emphasis is on what he fixed in Wisconsin and will fix in America.
Bush opts for being a “Restorer," which is how you say “reform” without bashing either your dad or brother. Same result: a focus on "restoring America's greatness" and providing what is "necessary today."
Fiorina's message of realizing our "potential" at least suggests the future…but her candidacy so far is built most on tearing down the current order. "We need leaders who do not accept what is broken," she says. She wants to be the "Turnaround Artist" (which itself is backward-looking).
The 3-D Printer (Marco Rubio)
Marco Rubio’s candidacy is by far the most optimistic and forward-looking in terms of his real message. To him "too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the twentieth century." Rubio wants to be the “Leader of Our Generation” in a New American Century. He proclaims "yesterday is over" and doesn’t dwell on it. He sees "opportunities in the new economy" where others see only danger.
Rubio is not without his issues. He will struggle to deal with immigration. He has to compete with his mentor for Florida's money and votes. But thematically, he is painting a different picture from the others. He’s using a 3-D printer in a room full of people trying to rewrite a book, arguing over whose pen is better.
Each one of these candidates would call themselves optimists. But rhetorically, only Rubio captures the spirit of Reagan, Clinton and Obama. His messages are the key ingredient for real, functional optimism: language that refers to the future rather than the past or present, and invites his audience to imagine themselves there.
Love him or hate him, it is this kind of optimism that tends to win Presidential elections.
*Special thanks to Ashley Sherman for her great research and incisive analysis in helping pull this together.