Election 2008

Dennis Cook/AP

Who’s the Real Candidate of Change?

September 15, 2008 01:29 PM
by Liz Colville
With Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket, the McCain campaign has adopted Obama’s watchword, “change.” But “change” means different things for each candidate.

Change vs. Experience

Since the launch of the campaign season last year, the presidential candidates have highlighted the differences between themselves and President George W. Bush, and between each other, using the buzz words “experience” and “change” in slogans and speeches. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were competing for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Clinton was the first to employ the word “change” in her slogan, “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead.” It was then adapted by Sen. Obama into “Change We Can Believe In.”

Ariz. Sen. John McCain has, up until recently, focused on the word “experience,” emphasizing his decades in the U.S. Senate and his military duty and time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, as well as his noted efforts to reach across party lines to pass legislation. But in June, the McCain campaign adopted the slogan, “A Leader You Can Believe In,” a twist on Sen. Obama’s slogan. Following the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain began to employ the word “change” and “reform” much more frequently.

McCain has touted Gov. Palin as someone with tangible experience reforming Alaskan government and curbing pork-barrel spending. “She’s exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and country second,” McCain said when announcing Palin as his running mate on Aug. 29.

Sen. Obama countered his opponent at a campaign stop on Sept. 6, remarking that Palin “poses as an anti-big-spending maverick despite having pulled in pork-barrel projects into her home state.”

A few days later, Obama, who has been repeatedly making the case that the McCain ticket is one of adherence to the policies of the Bush administration, added, “You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still going to stink after eight years.”

McCain continues to position himself as a maverick, and strengthens his case with the choice of Palin, another Washington outsider whose role shows he is rejecting the cronyism associated with the Bush Administration. McCain chose Palin despite the fact that they had barely known each other prior to his decision.

Background: How ‘change’ nabbed center stage

In July 2007, when Clinton and Obama were beginning their campaigns, Obama critiqued Clinton’s use of the word “change” in her slogan. Obama said change “can’t just be a slogan. … Change has to be something that is demonstrated day to day, on an ongoing basis.” His own slogan was thought to be a response to Clinton’s, placing more emphasis on the word “believe.”

During the primary season, Clinton often suggested that Obama’s voting record in the Senate belied his message of change, especially in the areas of energy, health care and the war in Iraq.

In a January speech, Clinton highlighted what she believed to be Obama’s shortcomings on the subject of change, particularly with reference to the Illinois senator’s voting record. “If you give a speech saying you’ll vote against the Patriot Act and you don’t, that’s not change. … If you say you passed the Patients’ Bill of Rights, but you don’t mention it never got signed into law, that’s not change. If you rail against the special interests … but you voted for Dick Cheney’s energy bill, that’s not change.”

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama insisted that he would lead the country markedly away from the direction of the Bush administration, which he said McCain would only continue to support. “John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. … I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change.”

The interplay of the Republican and Democratic candidates’ slogans began in early June. In a June 4 post, Sam Stein of The Huffington Post pointedly said the McCain campaign had “rip[ped] off” parts of Obama’s slogan, borrowing the phrase “Change We Can Believe In” and altering it to “A Leader We Can Believe In.” The new slogan was also used on the McCain Web site.

At the Republican National Convention, banners using the words “reform” and “change” made their appearance. The rhetoric of the candidates coupled McCain’s status as a “maverick” in Washington with Palin’s status as a governor who refused to conform to the big-spending habits of previous Alaskan governors. Palin emphasized both these points in her nomination acceptance speech.

Opinion & Analysis: Defining Change

The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein noted that in a speech following McCain’s slogan adjustment, “the Arizonan took his Obama-posing a step further, uttering the word “change” more than 30 times. Not that Obama can claim sole ownership of the word or idea, but still …”

Prior to McCain’s announcement of his vice presidential pick, Mark R. Levin of The National Review’s blog The Corner noted that Palin could threaten Obama’s standing as the inexperienced-but-reformist candidate. Levin speculated that Palin “would knock the legs out from under Obama’s monopoly hold on “change.” And attacks on her “inexperience” will only highlight one of Obama’s greatest vulnerabilities—and he’s at the top of the Democrat ticket.”

On Purple People Vote, one blogger argues that McCain’s “reform” is simply Sen. Obama’s “change” put into motion. A “reform ticket acknowledges the good of the initial structure, and seeks to [root] out what has corrupted it. The promise of change simply says things will be different; possibly better, possibly worse, but definitely different.”

Some commentators question the value of buzzwords like “experience” and “change” and how much weight they will actually hold in the White House. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor argues that “change trumped experience as the mantra of both campaigns.” At the DNC, Obama “laid out a fairly standard Democratic policy agenda,” and at the RNC, McCain emphasized his bipartisan experience. “But what does McCain mean by change? Sensation Sarah Palin broke the gender barrier in a big way, but her staunchly social conservative credentials make her most appealing to GOP voters.”

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