Trump did not engage with that issue in his announcement speech, and he does not engage with it as president. But he echoes one Republican candidate very clearly. In his 1991 campaign announcement, Pat Buchanan promised a “nationalist” campaign in which “we will put America first.”
The Democrats have their own relics of presidential announcements past. There was a time when Democratic candidates thought they won points for candor about national trade-offs. Adlai Stevenson promised in 1952, “Sacrifice, patience, understanding, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come. Let’s face it. Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains.” In 1974, Jimmy Carter also offered spinach: “We must even face the prospect of changing our basic ways of living.” Eight years later, Walter Mondale offered the same helping: “I call for tougher discipline … Everyone must contribute; all must sacrifice. I call for realism. There is a long haul ahead. Politicians must stop peddling quick fixes.”
More recent Democratic candidates have mostly shied away from that kind of talk because voters don’t think it sounds fun at all. Or they still promise that they will tell truths and then don’t say anything more abrasive or challenging than to list how bad the other party’s leader is.
So far in the 2020 season, no candidate has made an overtly political pitch when announcing his or her candidacy. In 1964, Barry Goldwater didn’t talk about issues, but about political positioning. In his brisk announcement, he explained why he was electable: “I decided to do this also because I have not heard from any announced Republican candidate a declaration of conscience or of political position that could possibly offer to the American people a clear choice in the next presidential election.” His candidacy was going to be, as he famously argued, “a choice, not an echo.”
For political sleight of hand, perhaps no candidate was more successful than John Kennedy. His pitch contained an argument that would help him circumvent the party’s tradition of picking veterans such as the older senators he was running against. “I believe that any Democratic aspirant to this important nomination should be willing to submit to the voters his views, record, and competence in a series of primary contests,” he said when announcing his campaign. Primaries weren’t the main way candidates were picked at the time, but Kennedy would never be the favorite of the backroom selection process. So he was arguing that the primary campaign was morally superior—because it brought candidates closer to the people—and therefore the others should join him on the field.
Often politicians focus on what they are not. In 1991, Bill Clinton pitched himself as a Democrat who could not be easily stereotyped as a typical tax-and-spend liberal. “A Clinton administration won’t spend your money on programs that don’t solve problems and a government that doesn’t work,” he said. Though Jimmy Carter was used by Republicans to create the Democratic bogeyman that Clinton was trying to wriggle out from under, Carter’s 1974 announcement was, one might say, Clintonian. It was filled with appeals for shrinking bureaucracy and streamlining government. Before Clinton was campaigning to “end welfare as we know it,” Carter was. “The word welfare no longer signifies how much we care, but often arouses feelings of contempt and even hatred,” Carter said in his announcement. “Is a simplified, fair, and compassionate welfare program beyond the capacity of our American government? I think not.”