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Election 2008

Making Change in 2008

Desiree Cooper

Millie Jefferson

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"Rally for Change"
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Desiree Cooper: If we were to stop the election cycle right now, I think two words would be right at the top of the list and they're "change" and "hope." Why is that?

Tracy Campbell: I think the whole point is to find something that sticks, and to me the word "change" really doesn't mean anything. What kind of change are we talking about? Virtually everyone can promise change. It's a pretty general phrase, but candidates have been doing that throughout American history. They tend to use phrases that don't really mean a lot, but will hopefully register with voters.

How can something register if it doesn't mean a lot?

Well, what does "the return to normalcy" mean?

Warren Harding used it in 1920 quite effectively and gained almost 60 percent of the popular vote. "Normalcy" was a 1920s word for change. It was obviously the notion that what we had before wasn't quite normal, but we'll return to that. Franklin Roosevelt brought us a "New Deal," and what a new deal meant he wasn't particularly clear about in his campaign. You just knew it was going to be different than what we had in the 1920s.

I think that's interesting, you're talking about these terms that are all synonyms for "change" and "hope" just like we find ourselves now in the 21st century. But there have been some words that maybe have felt a little bit more specific, like I am thinking about George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." How did that resonate?

Well, it resonated really well back in the late 1990s. Now, of course, if you can tell me what "compassionate conservatism" means, I'd sure like to know. But it seemed to suggest that he was a different kind of conservative someone who has a heart.

Barry Goldwater seemed to be the face of conservatism for a long time until Reagan and the Bushes could take some of that anger away and make it softer and gentler, more appealing. Whether in policy it was any different, you can be the judge.

Well, for a long time the l-word was a bad word, "liberal." It was used very effectively, and "conservative" was used as a way to brand oneself in a positive way, people liked that word. You are not hearing those two words very much this cycle.

I am not certain that we won't hear the word "conservative" more as the election proceeds. I do hear some of the Republican candidates trying to claim that they are the "real conservative," particularly the real heir to Ronald Reagan. I think as this primary season heads on, you will see the word "conservative" used a great deal.

Liberal is still a very dirty word in American politics, no one wants be branded like that. So, that is still one of those words that every candidate, whether they are liberal or not, will try to avoid because they know that rings with voters in a very negative way.

Well, was there ever a time when it was OK to be branded a liberal?

Yes. In fact in the immediate wake of the New Deal, candidates on both sides of the aisle wanted to take on that mantle because they wanted to show that they stood for Social Security, they stood for things like FDIC and to protect you from the harsher aspects of capitalism that had resulted in the Great Depression. At that point liberal meant that you were open minded. It certainly didn't have any of the negative connotations that I think Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and certainly Ronald Reagan were able to label that term so that now nobody will use it.

Well Tracy, thank you for joining us. And I am going to put my buzzword monitor to the test and see what happens towards the end of the election.

And let's see which ones we're talking about in November and which one registers. I doubt if it's been coined just yet.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: D'Arcangelo
    CD: Eksel (Rephlex)
More stories from our Election 2008 series


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