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Analysis

Presidential campaigns are almost always about the future. In 2020, the candidates cannot stop talking about the past

President Donald Trump, looking back.
President Donald Trump, looking back.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Ever since candidates began to actively campaign for president, there has been generally one unifying theme: what candidates hoped to do in the future.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran with the slogan “Vote yourself a farm and horses” to reinforce his support for the Homestead Act, which he signed into law after he won.

The 1908 presidential election featured a choice between “A square deal for all” from William Taft and populist William Jennings Bryan’s “Facing the Future.”

More recently, basically every presidential nominee from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Mitt Romney used themes of a hopeful future if they were elected. It explains how Barack Obama’s “Forward” 2012 campaign motto evolved into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 version of “Forward Together.”

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But one way that the 2020 presidential campaign diverts from the norm is its almost singular focus backward. Rhetoric from both President Trump and challenger Joe Biden is almost entirely about the past.

Trump cannot stop talking about the 2016 presidential election. It comes up in nearly every interview he gives. Biden talks almost entirely about what Trump has done in the past and how he wants to take the country back to the days of the Obama Administration. Remember, Biden still says he was called to run not so much by an aspiration for the future, but by his horror at Trump’s comments on the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Biden isn’t on the stump with a big plan.

Neither is Trump. Consider the ABC News Town Hall with Trump on Tuesday night. Over 90 minutes, Trump offered no vision of what he wanted to do in his second term, beyond a promise that the economy would improve somehow. He didn’t offer a health care plan. He didn’t discuss further tax cuts. He didn’t suggest a new approach for foreign policy or a new trade deal. No comprehensive plan to address climate change and prevent wildfires. He also said he hopes there’s not a race problem in America.

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Even the coronavirus, he suggested, would begin to disappear this fall on its own or with a vaccine.

None of this should be surprising to any close observer of the presidential campaign. It has become almost a running joke when Trump is asked by a Fox News host to spell out what he would do in a second term, because he answers with what he thinks he did in the first term. There have been at least five attempts to ask him this trying to get a clear answer.

Further evidence: the Republican National Convention didn’t even bother with coming up with a party platform. It was consistent with what Trump says, that things were great in the past before the coronavirus so, in theory, they will be great in the future — even as the how is fuzzy. The most concrete proposal Trump has offered for his second term was releasing a list of judges he would choose from for any future Supreme Court openings.

Democrats, meanwhile, passed a platform, but it didn’t include in it the biggest idea in Democratic politics: Medicare for All. The same for the Green New Deal. Still, Bernie Sanders, the lead progressive in the country, called it the most liberal agenda since Franklin Roosevelt if it were enacted. Yet, Biden doesn’t campaign on the platform. There was scant mention of a widely popular idea, raising the minimum wage, at the Democratic National Convention or on the campaign trail.

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Instead, campaign ads that Biden runs are trying to show he was a leader in the past and that Trump was a bad leader in the last four years. Trump talks more about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than he does about building the wall on the southern border, a key part of his 2016 rhetoric.

American presidential elections typically do something much more valuable than just elect a president. They give the nation time to collectively examine how we got to the present moment and what the right direction should be for the future.

When Bill Clinton was elected, he blared the Fleetwood Mac song with the lyric, “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

In 2020, the campaign theme song for both candidates might as well be the Beatles hit “Yesterday.”


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.