“Mourning in America”: Tone & Substance

Anyone loosely conversant in American politics will recall Reagan’s “Morning in America” 1984 re-election ad. Almost as famous as the “Daisy” ad, and justly so, it, almost alone, is responsible for the modern-day rhetorical equation between the name “Reagan” and the mood “optimism.” The ad’s message is simple, as simple as it needed to be: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Of course, query whether the picture Reagan paints is accurate, but when times are good, for the incumbent, a positive tone substitutes for any substantive discourse. The candidate can plausibly promise more of the same, more of what people want.

Now, pick up the nearest flashlight. Place your hand between the flashlight and the wall, and turn the light on. When you look at the resulting shadow, you’re looking at a darker, infinitely more shallow representation of your hand, something with actual depth, and actual substance. This is essentially what the modern Republican party, through Newsmax, has done with “Mourning in America,” a nearly shot-by-shot remake of Reagan’s ad, warning of the veritable downfall of American civilization. We have a shadow remake of the original, deprived of any power but fear, and bereft of any actual utility as a message.

Set aside the complicated questions of causation that make the ad’s attribution of blame somewhat questionable. “Morning in America” was a promise. It told voters what they’d get. “Mourning in America” contains no such pledge and offers no clue as to the opposition’s policy. And by abandoning hope and positive thought, it’s an utter derogation of everything Reagan’s legacy, as represented to us by conservative America, stands for. Negative campaigning, in optics and effects, is profoundly different from positive campaigning. Its modern heirs have fallen from whatever majesty the conservative movement, or Reaganism, once possessed. One can only hope that the electorate will hold them responsible for ads like this one.


  1. If your complaint can be boiled down to the unfortunate existence of negative ads, you might want to reference this study from the 2008 presidential campaign:


    There is a lot of negativity in campaigning but it certainly isn’t a uniquely conservative problem.

  2. I’ve never understood that criticism of Obama’s campaign ads: he was more negative than McCain in one week, which is all the article says, sure, but consider timing and history. This was contemporaneous with the Convention, and therefore Palin’s “community organizer” remarks and hate-laced speech, and long after McCain’s doozies, like the “Celebrity” ad, which aired late in the summer. The polisci research about whether negative campaigning requires a negative answer is complicated and provides no clear answer. Against that research, it’s hard to say what the responsible decision for the responding party is.

    That said, Hot Air is right to slam this as terrible, but maybe not the worst ever. Willie Horton?

    1. I believe there was a Wisconsin study that showed more negative Obama ads for the entirety of the campaign. Regardless, they were neck & neck going into September.

    2. Haha. When McCain tapped Palin.

      1. …and for the rest of the campaign…

  3. “…each of their children to be born with a $30,000 share of the runaway national debt which our party created in the first place, but we’ll do better this time around, we promise.”

    Fixed it for ’em.

    1. So the national debt was $0 when Bush took office?

    2. Oh my no. But its first derivative over time was negative. Before that, we can place the blame sensibly on non-Bush, Republican parties. Note that when Democrats have jacked the debt sky-high, they’ve also repaid it.


      1. It’s interesting to know who was President during periods of deficit growth but wouldn’t it make much more sense to check who controlled Congress during those periods, since of course it is Congress, not the President, that ultimately control the federal budget? I show Democrats controlling the House for about 40 years (1955-1995). They also controlled the senate for a good chunk of that time as well. Why no deficit reduction?

        And let’s also remember that it was only through Ike’s leadership that defense spending didn’t triple during his last two years in office. Kennedy spent much of the 1960 campaign complaining about the missle gap. LBJ committed us to enormous social programs that are driving at least part of the deficit today.

        As someone recently pointed out, HCR won’t take affect completely for several years. The real pain won’t be felt for even longer. Compairing deficit growth to a presidential timeline isn’t realistic.

    3. Cf. Table 7.1 on http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals/ gross debt was $5.6 trillion (or 57.3% of GDP) by the end of fiscal year 2000 and $9.9 trillion (69.2%) by EOFY2008 – and that does not include the 2008 bailout, which was approved a few days after the fiscal year ended.

      Although that’s actually not as remarkable as Reagan and Bush Senior: EOFY1980 was $909 billion (33.4%), rising to $4 trillion (64.1%) by EOFY1992. Now compare that with Clinton’s presidency: The debt rose by $1.6 billion, but dropped from 64% to 57% of GDP.

      I’m not saying that there can’t be good reasons to run a deficit and accumulate debt – one of them, incidentally, is being in the middle of a recession – but I think it’s more than a little rich that the Republicans present themselves as an “anti-debt party” when in fact all three GOP presidents in the last 30 years have increased the debt significantly in both relative and absolute terms.

      That they’re getting away with it is just tragic.

      1. Well the simple answer to that is that AMericans love tax cuts but someone always complains about spending cuts. A tax cut is a great big thing that elected officials have to vote on in the public eye. Spending is a death by a thousand cuts that is done mostly off the radar.

    4. I will say, at least Democrats are not opposed to balance spending with tax hikes (at least they used to be).

      I’ve said it before, we are in an increasingly difficult position where we neither cut spending nor raise taxes…and that’s what the public increasingly expects. Democrats have gone, people want less taxes, let’s give it to them. And Republicans went, people don’t want their benefits cut (or defense), let’s not do that.

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