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Dissecting GOP campaign rhetoric: Transforming vs. restoring America

Newt Gingrich speaking during Monday's Republican presidential debate in Tampa.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Newt Gingrich speaking during Monday's Republican presidential debate in Tampa.

What is the opposite of “back to the future?”

I nominate “forward into the past,” which is a version of the most recent campaign rhetoric slogan for both leading Republican presidential candidates.

A while ago, I noticed that Mitt Romney’s standard denunciation of President Obama alleged that: “…President Obama wants to ‘fundamentally transform’ America. We [meaning Romneyites] want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.”

This leads to the Obama who wants to turn America into a socialistic European-style “entitlement society,” as opposed to Romney who ”want(s) to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.” OK, fairly standard effort to push the “Dems are socialists”-button, with a faint echo of the he-likes-France-and-other-strange-foreign-things attacks on John Kerry that worked so well for George W. Bush in 2004.

On Saturday, in his South Carolina victory speech, Newt Gingrich also claimed to be the potential restorer of lost Jefferson/American/self-evident-truths virtue, thus:

GINGRICH: “I believe the debate we're going to have with President Obama over the next eight or nine months, the outlining of the two Americas, the America of the Declaration of Independence, the America of Saul Alinsky, the America of paychecks, the America of food stamps, the America of independence, the America of dependence, the America of strength in foreign policy, the America of weakness in foreign policy.”

So would-be Repub nominees seek to evoke something foreign about Obama and something Founding Fatherish in their own vision. The specifics of these arguments are for a few weirdo geeks who like facts. This is the age of Frank Luntzism, where focus group members turn dials to indicate which words or phrases make them feel most positive toward the speaker. And, as Luntz likes to say (in fact, it was the subtitle of one of his books): “It isn’t what you say; it’s what people hear.”

But, just to pretend that facts matter, let’s introduce a couple. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Obama ran in 2008 as a candidate of “change” (also “hope”) and he had a good bit of Luntzian success with those words.

But Obama also — on occasion — escalate the rhetoric from “change” to “transformation,” as in this speech, the week before the election, in which he said “we are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Somehow, Obama was able to survive the use of the T-word and win the election by a comfortable margin.

But apparently, in the years since then, someone with access to Romney’s word-advisers believes that Americans don’t want their country to be transformed, but want it to be restored to its founding principles, which are… well there’s room for discussion there, but the discussion might be long and muddled.

Gingrich perhaps has occasion to regret that he has spent much of his public life calling for “fundamental transformational change.” The health care think-tank that he started is even named the Center for Health Transformation and says on its website that it was “was launched in 2003 as a project of the Gingrich Group, a consulting firm founded in 1999 by Newt Gingrich and specializing in transformational change.” Gingrich wrote a book titled “Real Change” and likes to say (or used to like to say) he used this slogan as the title of the introduction of another of his books) that “real change requires real change.”

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Comments (6)

It's pretty easy to get your head around the Republican agenda when you just realize they want to erase the 20th century. There is no legitimate intellectual basis for this agenda since it's fantasy pretending to be nostalgia pretending to be history. The American they describe in history never actually existed.

What's really strange is how contrary to reality this "small government" vision of prosperity actually is. The nations GDP and wealth has steadily grown alongside a growing government, not decreased. The fantasy narrative of Republicans would dictate a decline in American prosperity in the 20th century rather than the explosion into world domination that we've actually see. Beyond America's shores you can easily contrast the smallest government economies like Somalia, with "big" government economies like China. Not that we'd want to emulate China but the idea that government is irrelevant to an economy is clearly absurd. This Republican fantasy that the presidents job is to nothing other than funnel money into his or her's friends pockets has put the US twenty years behind our competitors. Every single Republican candidate actually promises to nothing other than stand aside and hope someone else creates jobs. Crazy is what it is.

The question really needs to be asked--what past are you aiming for?

America was formed by people looking to escape their past and to escape a defined history and tradition that led to an unchangeable future. And, the recent past has never been more relentless in the destruction of habits and traditions.

Has America really changed from that to a backward looking people?

I suspect what people really want is economic security and prosperity with all the modern conveniences. However, this certainly was not the past and it is probably not a future that will ever be arrived at due to vicissitudes of the new global economy.

An uncertain grasp of history, linked with a hazy understanding of the past mostly arrived at from the sanitized "Waltons" and "Little House on the Prairie" television shows, and the constant blather from biased "news" commentary has manufactured an artificial desire for an artificial past. And oddly enough, the true benefits of "going back" accrue to the 1%.

We really don't have an option. We have to move forward. Going back (back to what?) is not an option. The US is not the sole determinant of the world economy as it was at the end of WW2. The world has changed in large part due to our efforts.

Deal with it. Put a vision forward as to how to deal with the killer costs of health-care and military spending. Put a vision forward of how an economy that requires fewer workers will keep the tranquility of the people. Put a vision forward of how we can transform the world into a more cooperative future.

It used to be big country with always a new frontier--it's now a very small world with finite resources.

Yup, the Repubs would love to restore America to a time when only white males could vote...

So the Republicans want to go back a couple of centuries or so to a time when the country was run exclusively by rich white Anglo-Saxon males.

So what's new?

Newt's idea of a small government is a monarchy.

Paul and Neal pretty well sum up the Republican "vision" thing for America.

I like Eric's slogan "Forward into the past" as the Republican slogan not just for his reasons but because it recalls one of the skits on the Firesign Theater's "How Can You be Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All". Which also seems to fit the Republican party.