In this time of Trump, where the mentality of a crude and hateful eight-year-old bully blankets our nation and politics, the eventual Democratic nominee will have big choices to make on how to run against Trump.
What does he/she do in response to Trump’s vicious yet infantile insults and slurs that will inevitably be hurled against him/her (and chanted by his cultists and Fox News)?
How does she/he address the cruelty of Trump’s actions and words in office and all of the lies and unethical acts? Would it be best to campaign against the worst that Trump represents in the U.S. and the world or would focusing on new and moral policies to replace Trump’s be more effective?
Back in 1960, then-Democratic Nominee, John F. Kennedy faced a similar challenge. Richard M. Nixon was his opponent and represented an agenda that would have supported and continued open bigotry and racial oppression throughout the country as well as cement the neglect and suffering of the poor and ill of the nation.
It was only because President Kennedy was elected then after his tragic assassination, was succeeded by President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Medicare were passed. Where would the U.S. be today if Nixon was elected in 1960 and none of those nation-changing laws were ever passed (which could be the sequel to The Man in the High Tower)?
Kennedy could have built his campaign as primarily adversarial, against Republicans and Nixon who would continue the policies of the past that oppressed so many Americans and may have made them even more destructive. However, while openly taking them on, President Kennedy made the focus of his campaign about recognizing many of the serious problems in the country and unapologetically urging Americans to accept the work and responsibility of being a citizen and helping to fix what was broken in America.
Unfortunately, that work remains unfinished today, more inequities and oppression still need to be addressed. That is why it may be instructive to go back and examine how Kennedy won the presidency at a very critical time for the country, how he defeated a dishonest, manipulative Republican (who would unfortunately have the chance to prove it years later) without shying away from confrontations but simultaneously promoting a bigger theme of challenging Americans to help make the country a better place.
Ignoring or rationalizing away the need for going toe-to-toe with Trump along the way would be irresponsible. Trump’s lies and destruction of critical American policies, institutions and values need to be fully exposed and condemned but shouldn’t be the primary platform of the Dem nominee. On the other hand, tossing out generalities about the problems Trump has caused or neglected, expressing that they could be easily solved if a Democrat is elected, would be pandering and disingenuous.
Repairing the damage Trump has caused and addressing urgent problems that impact many Americans, like health care, Climate Change, racism, economic injustice, voter suppression, etc. will be a heavy lift. It will require the commitment and dedication of a majority of the American people.
Kennedy believed it was important to alert and enlist Americans during his campaign so that if he did prevail in the election, he would have a majority of the people behind him as he took the long steps he felt were needed to address these issues.
In this respect, The Dem nominee in 2020 could learn a great deal from President Kennedy’s approach in 1960. Some Democratic candidates may already be stumbling in an attempt to appear reasonable, even criticizing many in their own party to pander to Trump voters. Or casually announcing their support for meaningful Progressive change with no details or explanations on how they would accomplish any of it. What is instead needed is the sharing of detailed propositions on how he/she would solve the problems at hand. Answering the “how”.
Vision is what voters want. Vision that “sees” them and the problems they confront daily and vision that recognizes the big picture problems that need big picture thinking. An agenda that has all Americans in mind, that can appeal and inspire, that is inclusive and doesn’t resort to the short-sighted thinking that targets of scorn must be set up in order to drive other demographics into your camp.
A fighter with vision. This would seem to be the thumbnail description of who could be an ideal Democratic candidate. Someone whose campaign focus is on being constructive and having pragmatic solutions to the problems Americans are burdened with yet would not ever hesitate to engage and take on Donald Trump and the outrages he’s responsible for.
President Kennedy accomplished this type of campaign. President Obama did as well. The Democratic nominee for President in 2020 might consider this as well, not only because it is a proven path to success but because, as President Kennedy said about the fight for racial equality, “It is the right thing to do.”
Below is an annotated version of President Kennedy’s speech to the DNC, accepting the nomination of the party to run for president. A few sections that were addressing Nixon or the 1960’s have been apologetically edited out (with ellipses) in order to highlight how this same speech could be given today and be just as inspirational and powerful. The idea that big changes are needed and that this is a challenge requiring all of us to come together, is not dated at all, it seems just what is needed in these divisive and turbulent times.
JFK’S PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION ACCEPTANCE SPEECH – JULY 15, 1960 (ANNOTATED)
Our task is not merely one of itemizing Republican failures. Nor is that wholly necessary. For the families forced from the farm will know how to vote without our telling them. The unemployed miners and textile workers will know how to vote. The old people without medical care–the families without a decent home–the parents of children without adequate food or schools–they all know that it’s time for a change.
But I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high–to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.
Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.
Abroad, the balance of power is shifting. There are new and more terrible weapons–new and uncertain nations–new pressures of population and deprivation. One-third of the world, it has been said, may be free–but one-third is the victim of cruel repression–and the other one- third is rocked by the pangs of poverty, hunger and envy. More energy is released by the awakening of these new nations than by the fission of the atom itself.
The world has been close to war before–but now man, who has survived all previous threats to his existence, has taken into his mortal hands the power to exterminate the entire species some seven times over.
Here at home, the changing face of the future is equally revolutionary. The New Deal and the Fair Deal were bold measures for their generations–but this is a new generation.
A technological revolution on the farm has led to an output explosion–but we have not yet learned to harness that explosion usefully, while protecting our farmers’ right to full parity income.
An urban population explosion has overcrowded our schools, cluttered up our suburbs, and increased the squalor of our slums.
A peaceful revolution for human rights–demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life–has strained at the leashes imposed by timid executive leadership.
A medical revolution has extended the life of our elder citizens without providing the dignity and security those later years deserve. And a revolution of automation finds machines replacing men in the mines and mills of America, without replacing their incomes or their training or their needs to pay the family doctor, grocer and landlord.
There has also been a change–a slippage–in our intellectual and moral strength. Seven (in our case, four) lean years of drouth and famine have withered a field of ideas. Blight has descended on our regulatory agencies–and a dry rot, beginning in Washington, is seeping into every corner of America–in the payola mentality, the expense account way of life, the confusion between what is legal and what is right. Too many Americans have lost their way, their will and their sense of historic purpose.
It is a time, in short, for a new generation of leadership–new men (and women) to cope with new problems and new opportunities.
For I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not “every man for himself” –but “all for the common cause.” They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within.
Today some would say that those struggles are all over–that all the horizons have been explored–that all the battles have been won– that there is no longer an American frontier.
But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won–and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the 1960’s (2020’s)–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.
Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises–it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook–it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.
But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric–and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me, regardless of party.
But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age–to all who respond to the Scriptural call: “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.”
For courage–not complacency–is our need today–leadership–not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously. A tired nation, said David Lloyd George, is a Tory nation–and the United States today cannot afford to be either tired or Tory.
There may be those who wish to hear more–more promises to this group or that–more harsh rhetoric about the men in the Kremlin–more assurances of a golden future, where taxes are always low and subsidies ever high. But my promises are in the platform you have adopted–our ends will not be won by rhetoric and we can have faith in the future only if we have faith in ourselves.
For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning-point in history. We must prove all over again whether this nation–or any nation so conceived–can long endure–whether our society–with its freedom of choice, its breadth of opportunity, its range of alternatives–can compete with the single-minded advance of the Communist (Dictatorial) system.
Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction–but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space and the inside of men’s minds?
Are we up to the task–are we equal to the challenge? Are we willing to match the Russian sacrifice of the present for the future–or must we sacrifice our future in order to enjoy the present?
That is the question of the New Frontier. That is the choice our nation must make–a choice that lies not merely between two men (or a woman and a man) or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort–between national greatness and national decline–between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of “normalcy”–between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity.
All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we will do. We cannot fail their trust, we cannot fail to try.
It has been a long road from that first snowy day in New Hampshire to this crowded convention city. Now begins another long journey, taking me into your cities and homes all over America. Give me your help, your hand, your voice, your vote. Recall with me the words of Isaiah: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.”
As we face the coming challenge, we too, shall wait upon the Lord, and ask that he renew our strength. Then shall we be equal to the test. Then we shall not be weary. And then we shall prevail.