By Kaleena Fraga
As Democrats gear up for midterm elections in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020 the party struggles to define its message. It cannot simply be the party of anti-Trump–especially if it aims to win back two-time Obama voters who turned Republican in 2016. Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former communications director and current co-host of the left-leaning podcast Pod Save America, has suggested that the Democrats take up “corruption” as part of their messaging. In recent weeks, his colleagues at Crooked Media have pushed this–corruption, collusion, and chaos.
It’s reminiscent of another young political operative. This one a Republican, and in the year 1952. Richard Nixon, as a candidate for the vice presidency, pushed the similarly sounding message of “Korea, Communism, Corruption”–K1C2.
While Eisenhower maintained a healthy distance from the campaign, Nixon leapt into the fray. He put up a fight for the presidency that would embitter many against him for the rest of his political career, including Harry Truman, who interpreted Nixon’s messaging as a sly way of calling him a traitor. (Truman would later insist that Nixon had personally accused him of treason, although no evidence exists to support this). Even in Nixon’s lowest point of the campaign–when he was forced to defend his use of a political slush fund in the now famous “Checkers” speech–he was sure to add at the end that electing Eisenhower was important because the Democrats had left the government riddled with Communists and corruption.
At one rally, Nixon said: “If the record itself smears, let it smear. If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, then let’s call for a hatchet.”
At another, he went further, accusing the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, of “carrying a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment.”
As for Korea, Eisenhower, a war hero, promised to visit the battlefield after the election. He and Nixon could argue that Stevenson lacked the necessary military experience, while no one could doubt Ike’s credentials. The war weighed heavily on the country. Truman kept a letter and a purple heart from a distraught parent in his desk, who sent it to him as the man “directly responsible” for their son’s death.
In the end, the alliteration worked–Eisenhower won 55% of the popular vote, won 39 out of 48 states, and took 442 electoral votes. He even won Stevenson’s native state of Illinois. Of course there were other factors at play. The Democrats had been in power since 1933 and there was a general feeling of fatigue toward their policies. Ike also campaigned on the promise of change.
Still, perhaps communications professionals of the Democratic party can take a page from Richard Nixon’s book. A s simple message, endlessly repeated, can go a long way.
Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
The President & the Apprentice by Irwin F. Gellman
Truman by David McCullough