President Obama’s campaign team must have thought long and hard before deploying ‘Forward’ as the one word campaign slogan for the 2012 Presidential election. Well aware that presidential contenders have, in the past, toyed with and turned their opponents’ slogans to their own advantage, what could possibly go wrong with such a robust, clear and unambiguous ‘Forward.’
It already has and it isn’t just Romney who’s managed to poke fun at it. The Democrats have managed to do that all on their own.
During a fundraiser last week, Romney mocked President Obama‘s re-election campaign slogan, “Forward.” Quipped Romney, “‘Forward,’ what, over the cliff?” reports The Daily Caller
I’d bet the Obama camp are wishing they’d added a direction sign to that “Forward.” Even something as mundane as “Forward to the future,” would have thwarted Romney’s diversion.
For their part, the Democrats with their “Forward, Not back” nonsense had already conjured up images in my mind of someone frantically waving their hands as they help guide a reversing truck into a tight space: “Forward, back a bit, left hand down. Whoa! STOP!”
Now, and I lay the blame for this entirely at Romney’s door, every time I see these banal “Forward, Not Back” two sided posters it brings to mind a French advert I saw for a Renault Scenic a few years back.
Whether Obama wins or loses on November 6, for me, “Forward” will be memorable only for being associated with those lovable French cartoon bunnies.
Forward to the past
Not all presidential slogans have been so accident prone. Some slogans from previous American presidential elections have assumed Shakespearean qualities and have passed into the English language. Some have puzzled electors over what on earth they meant. Some have just begged for a witty riposte from the opposition. Others have even made the transition from the election stump into song and vice versa
One of the first instances of sloganeering in the American presidential was in 1840 when the fairly innocuous exhortation was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” referring to the Whig Party's (yes, the USA used to have a Whig Party too, just like its former colonial masters) candidates William Henry Harrison (the "hero of Tippecanoe") and John Tyler. It was also a campaign song in which some verses denigrated incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. The song ‘had legs’ and as recently as 2004, the rock band They Might be Giants
contributed a modern version of it to a political campaigning compilation album entitled Future Soundtrack for America.
After a faltering start, sloganeering got into gear in the 1864 election when Abraham Lincoln’s slogan was “Don't swap horses in midstream.” This slogan would later provide ammunition for supporters of Democrat John Kerry when he faced off against George W. Bush. In the Kerry-Bush contest of 2004, the earnest tone of Lincoln’s 1864 phrase (which Dubya had unwisely borrowed) became, “"Don't change horsemen in mid-apocalypse."
A 19th century pre-cursor of today’s ’shock-jocks’ was 1868 victor Ulysses S. Grant’s catchphrase, “Vote as You Shot.” In 1868, no-one had heard of Peace and Reconciliation Commissions.
Hostage to Fortune
Sloganeering’s greatest hostage to fortune must be Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 utterance, “He kept us out of war.” Quite. Woodrow Wilson was sworn in for a second term on March 5, 1917 and the United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917. In fairness to Wilson, whilst he might have been prepared to put up with Germany courting Mexico, the sinking by German U-boats of the British passenger liner Lusitania carrying many American civilians, had almost certainly guaranteed that the US would enter World War I, despite the campaign slogan.
Song Slogans Spell Success
That was certainly true for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 when America’s longest serving president won his first term. The 1929 song ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ became his campaign anthem and slogan. Roosevelt would remain in office till his death in 1945. He was succeeded by then Vice-president Harry S.Truman. When the 1948 election came round, the Truman campaign once again looked to their record collection for inspiration and settled for the 1921 song, “I'm just wild about Harry.” Truman comfortably beat his Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey.
Campaign managers might do well to remember that music for the masses seems to work quite well in US Presidentials.
What is he talking about?
The nadir for presidential slogans was the 1930s, specifically, the turgid prose dreamt up for the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Alfred M. Landon who stood as Republican challenger to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. Was it symptomatic of the post-depression years? Or, perhaps, his wordsmiths had taken their cue from Republican Warren G. Harding’s unfathomable 1920 campaign headline of, “Return to normalcy.” Eh? Unfortunately, no-one told Landon that Harding had won despite
his Victorian prose.
One of the phrases which clearly wasn’t a vote winner for Langdon was the less than snappy, “Defeat the New Deal and Its Reckless Spending.” Just try fitting that around a sticky lapel badge. The only US President in history who’s enjoyed success with long slogans is that master of the homily, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s cosy, “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?” had voters nodding in agreement all the way to the polling stations in 1984.
Langdon also came up with, “Let's Get Another Deck.” This was a contrived riposte to Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Deal, as in cards, deal cards, deck of cards, new deck. Geddit? No? Neither did American voters. Roosevelt won a massive 60.8% of the popular vote, the second highest ever for a US Presidential.
Hey! Gimme back my slogan!
1964 was memorable for the Democrat candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson having the almost bombproof and highly chant-able, “All the way with LBJ.” His opponent, Barry Goldwater’s slogan was “In Your Heart, You Know He's Right.” It was asking for trouble. The favored 1964 equivalent of Romney’s recent Obama put-down was, “In Your Guts, You Know He's Nuts.” Poor Barry, that’s how the American electorate saw it and LBJ cruised to the Oval Office with over 61% of the popular vote, the highest vote achieved by any American president before or since.
Much like William Shakespeare did so much to enrich spoken English, a few US Presidential slogans seem destined to become part of the language. One such is Bill Clinton’s, “It's the economy, stupid,” which, in 1992, managed both to disparage incumbent President George H.W. Bush’s record and infer that Bush was clueless when it came to matters economic.
But the all time winner is such a simple phrase. Absent are the mogadon qualities of a Langdon slogan or the menace of that of Ulysses S. Grant. The winner, for me, is both clear and catchy yet it manages to be supportive of its candidate without insulting the opposition. Had it been invented in a different era, it might have launched one of our present day social networks. Who knows, it may have been the inspiration for Facebook. The phrase I have in mind is one which was to launch Dwight D. Eisenhower to the White House in 1952. All it said was, “I like Ike.” So effective was it that when Eisenhower sought re-election in 1956 all his campaign team did was add a single word and ran with “I still like Ike.”
So, for anyone thinking about running for the White House in 2016 or 2020, my advice is simple. Change you name to ‘Ike’ forthwith and start garnering ‘Ikes’ on that Facebook page immediately.