Are you sick of all the fighting in Washington? Are you sure? Because for the past 20 years, with a few hopeful exceptions, Americans have voted for exactly this – fighting, intransigence, and leaders who have made a habit of specifically promising to fight and not back down.
Fighting in American politics is nothing new, of course, especially in a country founded by revolutionaries. But at some point, American leaders went from promising to fight the country’s enemies to believing we are each other’s enemies. The story of that evolution, at least in the last several years, comes down to a single word – “fight.”
I distinctly remember the moment in 2002 (in my previous life working in politics) when our campaign’s media consultant told the candidate to use the word “fight” early and often in an upcoming debate. “Focus groups really respond to that – they say want someone who will fight for them. So always try to frame your plans in terms of a fight.”
From then on, I noticed how many candidates and campaigns used the word prominently in their messaging, most likely because they’d been told to. By the time I switched from politics to journalism to cover campaigns, I had voters telling me they wanted what they’d been promised all those years – a fight. “Who is going to stand up to Obama?” tea party activists asked me in 2010.
I heard the same in 2012 from Republicans frustrated that Mitt Romney was too soft to stop Democrats, and again in 2016, when Democratic activists wanted someone to stand up to not just Republicans, and when the GOP chose a nominee who called his opponents “losers.” I can’t even print what women voters told me they wanted to see happen to President Donald Trump in 2018, but trust me when I tell you they wanted him stopped.
And here we are, with a government shutdown with no end in sight, in large part because the current mandate to both parties over the last eight years hasn’t been a call to compromise, get along or make Washington work through constructive dialogue. It’s been to fight.
The story of voters looking for a fight is as easy to see as the word itself. In Barack Obama’s famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Obama never said the word “fight” once.
After 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, voters were hungry for a unity that Republicans in Washington weren’t giving them. Instead of mocking the GOP or promising to fight anyone, Obama talked about shared dreams, American values and the qualities that make Americans so much more alike than different. “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America,” he said to the roar of the crowd.
In his 2008 DNC acceptance speech four years later, then-Sen. Obama spoke of fighting twice, but both times, he talked about fighting terrorists overseas – never about Americans fighting each other.
By 2012, Obama was framing his next term as a fight, and said it twice in his DNC speech that year, describing Democrats’ shared fight for middle class voters and the values that “built the largest middle class in the world.”
That same year, Mitt Romney also talked about fighting in his RNC speech, including his nostalgia of breaking up his sons’ fights when they were little boys. Romney may have won the nomination, but he never won the base of the party.
But when I covered the GOP primary that year, voters told me again and again that they wanted more fight from Romney – a lot more. “I want someone who will take the fight to Obama,” a Newt Gingrich supporter (complete with Revolutionary garb and a tricorn hat) told me. “Newt will take the fight to him.”
I heard the same in 2016, but from voters in both parties. Democrats wanted a candidate to fight special interests and corporations and the GOP Congress that they felt had been deeply unfair to Obama. Republicans wanted a party leader to finally stand up to Democrats in a way Romney, John McCain, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner never had.
Enter Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – their parties’ answers to the fighters their voters wanted. Was Hillary a fighter? Not really. But the famously poll-tested candidate sure talked like one. In her DNC acceptance speech, she upped her “fight” quotient to seven – promising to “fight for change,” “fight for affordable health care,” “fight for the country,” and all of the other items on Democrats’ wish lists.
And Trump? The man who bragged he never hired a pollster seemed to know instinctively that any politician can promise to fight – nearly all of them did – but very few could truly and unequivocally win, and that’s exactly what he promised voters to do in 2016. At a rally in South Carolina that year, he never even discussed fighting. Instead, he said the word “win” 22 times. “We’re going to win so much you’re going to be tired of winning.” America, are we tired of winning yet?
The government shutdown is painful and deeply unfair. But it’s also the result of voters getting exactly what they asked for. Trump is fighting Democrats, and Democrats are fighting Trump. This is the government we voted for. If we want something different, it’s time to say so – now.
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