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Time for a change – in stale campaign slogans

FRIDAY, AUG. 6, 2010

There was a time when political speech was vigorous and interesting.

Wasn’t there? That’s what the history books suggest, at least. Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. You Shall Not Crucify Mankind Upon a Cross of Gold.

But for a long time now, the language candidates use to describe themselves have reached a nadir of dull, repetitive cliché. Candidates tout their integrity. Their proven leadership. Their experience – or utter lack of experience.

Or, heaven help us, their common sense.

It’s a mad rush of generalities, intended to avoid anything specific or interesting. And it must contribute to the sense that the scoundrels are all the same.

Because, if you look just at their sloganeering, they are.

Campaign slogans are not the most crucial issue for voters, by any means. In many ways, they’ve disappeared: Most yard signs don’t have them anymore, and the political button has gone the way of the eight-track tape.

Still, just a couple years ago, President Barack Obama’s campaign showed that a slogan – whether it’s “Change We Need” or “Yes We Can!” – can stick, for better or worse. But even so, those slogans were stale retreads. Walter Mondale – and 5 billion other candidates – ran on “Change.” And “Yes We Can!” is a pared-down version of a slogan George W. Bush used in 2004: “Yes America Can!”

That tells you all you need to know about the vacuous nature of today’s campaign slogans. They work equally well for anyone.

I wondered whether anyone running for office around here had a decent slogan. What do you think I found?

Here’s a little mid-column quiz, so you can see for yourself. Match the candidate with the slogan, if you can. (To eliminate a couple gimmes, I have replaced all state or city names with Freedonia.)

1) Right for Freedonia

2) Experience Counts!

3) Elect an Innovator. Not a Politician.

4) Working for Freedonia

5) A Man for Our Times

6) Forever Freedonia!

7) My Name Says It All

8) Empower Freedonia!

9) Responsible, Independent Leadership for Freedonia

10) A Game Plan for Freedonia

11) “It’s Just Common Sense”

12) From the People for the People

13) Proven Leadership for Freedonia

A) Clint Didier, Republican Senate candidate in Washington; B) Pro-Life, a candidate for Idaho governor; C) Walt Minnick, Democratic congressman from Idaho; D) Mike Simpson, Republican congressman from Idaho; E) Brian Schaud, independent House candidate in Idaho; F) Butch Otter, running for re-election as Idaho governor; G) Jana Kemp, independent candidate for Idaho governor; H) John Ahern, Republican representative in Washington; I) John Driscoll, Democratic candidate for state House in Washington; J) Paul Akers, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Washington; K) Clyde Cordero, Democrat for Congress from Spokane; L) Andy Billig, Democrat for state House in Washington; M) Frank Malone, Democratic candidate for Spokane County prosecutor.

Answers: 1-C, 2-H, 3-J, 4-D, 5-F, 6-E, 7-B, 8-G, 9-I, 10-A, 11-M, 12-K, 13-L.

A few notes: Yes, there is an Idaho man who has changed his name to Pro-Life to run for office. His biography includes a date of “fertilization” preceding his birth. And Clint Didier’s slogan at least reflects what he’s known for – playing in the NFL.

Special honors go to Ahern and Billig, for the least original slogans on the block. Ahern’s “Experience Counts!” slogan is also the tag of choice for a district attorney candidate in Georgia, a City Council candidate in Blue Ash, Calif., a student body treasurer candidate at the University of San Francisco, and a candidate for sophomore representative at a high school in Buffalo, N.Y.

Oh, yeah – and Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, back in 1960.

And Billig’s “Proven Leadership” tag is equally common, in use by candidates for City Council in Torrance, Calif., mayor in Vacaville, Calif., Congress in Virginia, student body president at Emerson College, and school board in Midlothian, Texas.

Which brings us back to common sense.

Everybody’s got it. And yet everybody assumes other people don’t.

A brief and by no means exhaustive scouring of recent news articles and political websites produced the following:

Idaho congressional candidate Raul Labrador bravely decrying the fact that politicians refuse to make “common-sense choices.” New Kootenai County Commissioner Jai Nelson revealing her view that voters want more of a “common-sense approach.” Walt Minnick upsetting the apple cart by declaiming he wants to work for “common-sense solutions.”

Patty Murray’s view of the financial reform bill? “Common sense.” Dino Rossi’s preferred replacement for health care reform? “Common sense.” John Ahern’s take on the reason to prevent gays from marrying? “Common sense.”

Sarah Palin endorses Vaughn Ward as one of those “common-sense conservatives.” She says the same thing about Didier. George Nethercutt heaps the same praise on Shelly O’Quinn in an endorsement, noting that she wants to inspire citizens to work for “common sense in government.”

People wave this dull, old phrase around like it was shiny and new. I do it myself. We ought to realize what an empty bucket it is, because our problems are large and our disagreements real. It’s a nice fantasy that powerful people are fools and salt-of-the-earth types are wise. That all government lacks is the simple insight of the kitchen table or the bar stool.

But I’m not sure. What we really need is probably not so common.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

Tags: elections

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