It is a Washington ritual so old that it probably dates back to the era when senators lived in boarding houses and any stray citizen could wander into the White House.
As soon as a president unveils a new political slogan, White House aides eagerly leak the details of the arduous decision-making that went into the word choice. The leaks make it seem like the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb was a casual endeavor compared to the slogan search.
A classic example is Joe Biden’s new set of political epithets: “MAGA Republicans” and “ultra-MAGA” politicians.
Recent news stories in The Washington Post and USA Today revealed that the Biden catchphrase was the product of six full months of research by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Plus, of course, private polling by Hart Research and the Global Strategy Group.
You can just imagine poll questions like: “What words make you the angriest:
Personally, I would get into a bar fight with the first “Warren Harding Republican” who crossed my path. But I freely admit that I remain more upset by the Teapot Dome scandal than many.
The underlying political logic behind attacking “MAGA Republicans” is sound. Large chunks of the GOP are ensnared in a Trumpian cabal that is about a cult of personality rather than policy issues.
It may have taken the Biden team six months (and probably dozens of meetings) to realize that the 2022 election is, in effect, a referendum on the future of democracy rather than a routine fight over diverging economic policies.
But trying to use the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” as a Biden boomerang is too clever by half. It’s like getting caught up with the alliteration in the ungainly “Build Back Better.”
Democrats are ensnared in the campaign consultant trap. The president’s party is animated by the belief that some political phrasemaker will invent the magic five or six words that will transform the 2022 election.
Sorry, politics doesn’t work like that anymore, if it ever did.
Ronald Reagan could run on “Morning in America” in 1984 because unemployment (while still over 7 percent) was dropping fast, and the economy was gathering steam. It wasn’t the slogan, but the legitimate feeling that — after a long recession — things were getting better that made the difference.
We have long exaggerated the power of campaign consultants in both parties to cloud the minds of voters. In high-profile races, most TV ads cancel each other out. And it’s hard to think of any slogan in any off-year election in this century that made a difference.
For all the storm clouds hovering over the heads of Democrats, the 2022 midterms defy easy handicapping. No one can even say — with any degree of certainty — what the dominant themes will be in November.
Even if inflation continues as a nagging problem, will voters feel as hard-pressed by higher prices as they do today?
Will America be reeling from a new variant of COVID-19? Or will we finally be feeling like we have gotten our normal lives back for the most part?
Will the Supreme Court follow through and actually overturn Roe v. Wade? And if so, will it galvanize Democratic voters or produce bitter cynicism about politics?
Will the Jan. 6 hearings be a ratings smash? Or will they merely give Democrats and never-Trumpers new reasons to revile the former president?
Will all the Republican candidates who embrace Trump’s “stolen election” fantasies arouse GOP turnout or convince right-wingers that voting is pointless?
Although it is foolhardy to admit this on cable TV, the answers to most of these questions are unknowable right now. Even if you correctly anticipate the event, it is hard to predict the reaction.
Most insiders knew that Roe v. Wade was in jeopardy, but few would have forecast the fierce and unequivocal reaction after the leaking of Samuel Alito’s draft opinion. According to a new NBC News poll, a record 60 percent of the electorate now believes that abortion should remain legal.
Almost every day, external events change the political calculus.
Kathy Barnette, a fire-eating Trump true believer who has been belittled by the former president, has suddenly emerged as the favorite to win Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania. With NBC News verifying photographs of Barnette marching with the extremist Proud Boys on the way to the Capitol on Jan. 6, she appears unelectable by all standards of traditional politics.
New congressional district maps in New York, released Monday, suggest that Republicans might gain a House seat in the state rather than lose four seats, as was anticipated under a Democratic gerrymander rejected by the state’s courts. New York state alone may prevent the Democrats from holding on to their narrow House majority.
It is encouraging that Biden seems committed to campaigning against Republican extremism in November. But that requires a full-throated case that the GOP is flirting with autocracy rather than a few magical words slamming “MAGA Republicans.”
Politics at its best is an argument rather than sloganeering. Similarly, actual congressional legislation matters far more than message votes to arouse a party’s base.
In short, 2022 will be decided by megatrends, not MAGA slogans.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.