With all this talk about change from the presidential aspirants, one should remember that in politics, as in few other endeavors, the more things change the more they stay the same. Reinforcing the truth of this cliche, of course, is the fact that the c-word has been the universal theme of candidates for public office almost since the invention of elections.
There is another truism that makes the promise of new approaches from the Oval Office most difficult to sustain. Washington is not only slow to change but is nearly immune from radical alteration. It is an institution unto itself where decisions are made at bureaucratic levels far below that of the Oval Office, no matter what policies a president may set. To effect real change, one must think in practical terms and spend years trying to get there. Medicare is an example, winning passage in 1965 after decades of bartering.
In America, revolutionary thinking can be defined as the simple altering of a few lines in the Internal Revenue Service code or proposing the raising or lowering of Social Security benefits. Promoting anything much more extreme than that probably ends up meaning that most candidates are wasting money campaigning. Rep. Ron Paul’s libertarian ideas, which have raised a lot of money on the Internet for a presidential effort that has never gotten above moribund, is a case in point. Taking the country back to a kinder, gentler time might have its appeal to those who have more dollars than sense, but when it comes to casting a vote reality sets in rather rapidly. Besides, they didn’t have the Internet in the kinder times.
When Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas during the darkest economic and social period in the history of the Republic got too radical, Supreme Court justices reined him in by ruling they were contrary to the Constitution. He then tried unsuccessfully to increase the size of the court — so much for change. Don’t misunderstand. The illusion of change can be very powerful. For millions of young Americans, John F. Kennedy held out the promise of a more vibrant America. So he gave them Vietnam and made little headway in reforming race relations or in solving any other major domestic problem.
What the current crop of candidates seems to be promising is difficult to define. They talk in terms of universal health care and revolutionizing public education and of making the tax code fairer by forcing the rich to pay more, and they hold out the promise of ending America’s adventures overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how is that much different from what candidates traditionally endorse? It isn’t, of course. And when one looks at the front-runners for the nomination in both parties, it is difficult to find the kind of practical leadership experience that might give us some hope they could fulfill their promises.
On the Democratic side, Barack Obama and John Edwards are woefully short of on-the-job training that would make a decent resume for a top managerial spot in most companies. Obama walked into the U.S. Senate and announced almost immediately that he would now like to run the country based on two qualifications: He is young and half-black. Edwards won his first public office as one of North Carolina’s two senators and almost immediately began seeking higher office. For six years, including a vice-presidential nomination, he has never slowed his stumping, demanding and promising change. Only Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton can make a legitimate claim of experience, and her opponents who disparaged her as too influential as first lady now charge her role was minor.
Republicans aren’t in much better shape. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who changed his profession from seeking converts to Christ to searching for voters of any stripe, wants change. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says he is for change. As proof he has altered his own moderate stances on controversial social issues like abortion. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hasn’t changed. He is still talking about his experience during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on his city. The person with the most experience in the change department is Sen. John McCain, who seems finally to be returning to game form.
So when it comes to the c-word, it might be wise not to accept the concept too easily. In fact, it might be better to go for the candidate who talks less about it in the abstract and more about the realities accomplishing it. That’ll be the day.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)