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Incorrect Change

The campaign's new theme.

11:00 PM, Jan 7, 2008 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Manchester, NH
Plus ça change, plus it's pretty much the same thing.

The Democratic presidential campaign has boiled down to a debate on the theme of "change." Since change was Barack Obama's mantra from the outset, the need for Hillary Clinton to wage the contest on Obama's turf, rather than on her chosen theme of experience, has been a stunning setback. Yet there she has been for the last few days, arguing desperately that she is the true agent of change while Obama is more "talk" than "action."

Hillary has half a point. Obama is a man who clearly likes to talk. And with very good reason. His stump speech before overflowing crowds in New Hampshire this week has been spellbinding and inspiring. His rallies have rapidly turned into events, with energy radiating from a new star. Obama, who burst on the national scene with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, is clearly the best orator in the current field. He is especially adept, or facile, when it comes to speaking in glittering generalities like change and now, in a new peroration, of hope as well. This man of Hope looks unstoppable.

What is change? It looms in Obama's discourse like a mystical concept that is larger than the sum of its parts. It is Change with a capital C. Break it down into its individual pieces--the changes--and it loses much of its luster. It becomes little more than a conventional litany of liberal Democratic programs: ethics reform, universal health care, fairer taxes, and ending the war in Iraq. But allow it to soar in Obama's eloquence and it achieves almost a moral and spiritual dimension. Change will bring "a different kind of politics" that produces a leader (Obama) able to reach across party lines to end polarization, albeit entirely on liberal terms. This aspect of Obama's appeal, which elevates politics beyond concrete issues, has completely confounded Hillary Clinton's campaign. She has had no answer to it.

Neither has she been able to respond to another point. While Obama has publicly directed his appeal for Change against George Bush and the Republicans, he has also targeted an unnamed co-conspirator: the low politics of the Clinton presidency. In the spirit of the old master himself, Obama is inviting Democrats to "move on." To judge by the crowds at his rallies, this message, subliminally delivered, has had enormous appeal to a new generation and to many of the older generation as well. Democrats want to cheer and revere Bill--he has drawn overflow crowds himself for the last week--but at a distance.

Where do Republicans stand in relation to the great god of Change? One indication that it has been the Democrats who have controlled the presidential campaign so far is that many Republicans have echoed the idea that the lesson of Iowa must be an undifferentiated endorsement of Change. While a version of Change was also original to Mike Huckabee's campaign, the Republican's eternal poll watcher, Mitt Romney, admitted that he drew this teaching from Obama.

But this stance cannot possibly work for Republicans in the fall campaign. It is fine to speak of the need for specific changes, but embracing Change as the dominant theme would be to follow Hillary and fight the election on Obama's terms. After all, the Republicans have held the presidency for the last eight years. There has to be something worth conserving from this period.

Some Republicans have taken this lesson to heart. The Republican who has generated the most energy this week has been the old-warrior, and this year's likely comeback kid, John McCain. McCain, too, has spoken of change, but he has introduced a theme that no one else has dared to emphasize. He has been using the V word, "victory" in Iraq, as one of his central appeals, and thus talks about conserving this legacy, however flawed in execution, of the Bush presidency. While Obama promises to bring back the soldiers from Iraq with dignity and honor (within one year), McCain speaks of bringing them back with dignity, honor, and victory. The contrast could not be greater.

The greatest real change in the presidential campaign so far has been the shift in the military situation in Iraq. It has revived John McCain's campaign and turned the Democrats' debate into one largely about domestic issues, with vague references to our standing in the world. Obama's stump speech has evolved over the past few months to accommodate this shift. Republicans can take some solace from this change. 2008 will not be a simple repeat of 2006.

Much of the punditocracy now in New Hampshire has been inching toward the idea that the results of the primary tonight will likely set (or reflect) the national results. The choice in November will be between Barack Obama and John McCain, with, to take the speculation to its furthest conclusion, Bill Richardson and Mike Huckabee as their respective running mates. This thinking might come from being too close to the event of the day, but if that is indeed America's choice this year, then what's not to like about it?

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and coauthor, most recently, of Red over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics.