The greatness card is in play. Republican Donald Trump declares that elect him president and he will “Make America Great Again.” Democrat Hillary Clinton insists America already is great and tells us in her ads that we should let Trump know we agree with her.
It ought to be a simple tussle over rhetoric but the Clintons weave webs of contradictions around everything they touch. At the end of February, Hillary Clinton told a cheering crowd, “Despite what you hear, we don’t need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great.”
After they teach the former secretary of state to use a fax machine, someone in her vast organization should show her Google. For more than two decades the Clintons have been issuing calls to make America great, great, great again. They offer a simple recipe for restoring lost national greatness: elect one of them president.
In 2007, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton wrote in a piece for The New York Times (excerpted from a Foreign Affairs article) that the United States had been losing influence in the world. We needed to be guided by the goodness of “the American idea. If we can live up to that idea, if we can exercise our power wisely and well, we can make America great again.”
Bill Clinton pitched in several months later in South Carolina, where his wife was on the verge of a humiliating defeat by surging rival Barack Obama, according to a January 27, 2008 report in the Chicago Tribune. In a radio ad to what had once been a friendly Democratic electorate, Bill Clinton said, “We created more than 22 million new jobs, moved 8 million people out of poverty and turned our economy around. It’s time for another comeback; time to make America great again.”
It wasn’t the first time Bill Clinton had bemoaned American decline. His 1992 campaign was salted with promises of national greatness. He’d begun that improbably successful campaign against Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush with this: “Together we can make America great again, and with your help, your heart, your devotion, and your efforts, we can build a community of hope that will inspire the world.”
In the spring of 1992, Clinton responded in a 30-second ad to growing attacks by saying he wanted to confront the nation’s real problems—jobs, education and health care—and “make America great again.” That summer Clinton told the Urban League he’d take its economic plan and his own, make them into one and, yes, you can finish the sentence, “make America great again.”
By the fall of 1992 a campaign press release hip hoorayed Clinton telling 400 CEO supporters he would revive the economy “and make America great again.” A few days later in Georgia, the Arkansas governor expanded on the greatness promise. He told a rally, “And now you are being called upon, every one of you, to secure a better future for your children and your grandchildren and to make America great again economically, educationally and socially.”
In Missouri the boast grew grander, as these things often do in a campaign. By October, he promised, “Join with us. I ask for your prayers, your help, your hand and your heart. Together we can make America great again and build a community of hope that will inspire the world. I still believe that. Work with me for 32 days and we’ll take our country back.” Yet another shared rhetorical flourish between the Clintons and Trump.
Loathsome demagogue Trump espouses a dark and menacing view of American life. We are, his mosaic of grievances suggests, a nation surrounded by wretched, ungrateful allies and not so terrible adversaries. His notion of national greatness is an America in retreat. Hillary Clinton, diving for votes from the growing and revolting left wing of her party, recites a long list of her grievances with policies she once supported, especially when delivering a primary night victory speech, though those have been less frequent than she expected.
The yearning for uplifting leaders is a long American tradition that has, yes, contributed to American greatness. America is great because it’s people are great. This grim presidential campaign will not change that as a lying, greedy New Yorker looks to confront a greedy lying New Yorker in November. The chance to elect a great president is not on offer this year.