Change, change, change, change, change! With astounding unanimity, throughout the politic sphere--in the campaigns, in the media coverage, in pollsters' surveys--the word "change" is bubbling on people's lips. You'd think that a word, not a person, had won each of the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Barack Obama, who announced in his speech after his victory in Iowa, "Our time for change has come," was, of course, the prince of change. But suddenly "change" seemed to be the key to all political futures, as every candidate, Democrat or Republican, scrambled, by uttering the magic word as many times as possible, to affix it to themselves. In his speech after the Iowa results, John Edwards announced that the winner was not exactly Barack Obama but... "change." He stated, "What won was change over the status quo." Thus, he had not been defeated by Obama; he and Obama been part of a joint victory over the status quo. Hillary Clinton agreed that the word rather than any specific person had been the winner: After thanking the other candidates, she said, "Together, we have presented the case for change." Later, in New Hampshire, she asserted that her very gender spelled change. She said, "I think I am an agent of change. I embody change. I think having the first woman President is a huge change..."
The contagion immediately spread to the Republican Party, where Mitt Romney, that plaything of every passing political breeze, seemed almost to be engaged in a word game whose rule was to purge the English language insofar as possible of every word but this one. For instance in the Republican debate in New Hampshire, he babbled, "I can say, 'Not only can I talk change with you, I've lived it.' In the private sector for twenty-five years, I brought change to company after company. In the Olympics, it was in trouble. I brought change. In Massachusetts, I brought change. I have done it. I have changed things."
But Clinton bested him. In the Democratic debate, she said, "I want to make change, but I've already made change. I will continue to make change. I'm not just running on a promise of change. I'm running on thirty-five years of change." (Thus Clinton managed to use the word five times in a thirty-two-word passage, for a winning percentage of 15.6 percent, whereas it had taken Romney fifty words to get in five uses, for a mere 10 percent rate.)
Also, there now appeared here an animal called the "change voter" (who apparently had shouldered aside such previous favorites as the "security Mom" and the "values voter"). ABC news found that 51 percent of these people preferred Obama.
Even George Bush got into the act, through his spokesman Tony Fratto, who rather cryptically said, "It's good to see change in this job."
To state the obvious, this word, taken by itself, is an almost perfect vacuum. Its ubiquity marks a surprisingly metaphysical turn in American politics, as if Hegelians or the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had taken charge of our political discussion. In actuality, of course, it is not philosophers but political consultants, market researchers, TV ad writers and pollsters who have created the new abstract vocabulary, distilling all the particulars of American aspirations into a few blurry, glowing phrases--or in this case, just one word.
National healthcare would be a change, but so would a smallpox epidemic. Hurricane Katrina was a change, and so was the Iraq war. George Bush--a change from whom is presumably wanted--has indeed been the biggest "agent of change" in a generation. And what can the "change" that Mitt Romney has brought "to private enterprise" have to do with the change that Hillary Clinton represents just by being a woman? When combined with Obama's reported desire to create a "post-partisan politics" (in which there is not a red or a blue America but a "United States of America"), the void only expands. Obama wants to get American troops (or most of them) out of Iraq; John McCain says he might keep them there for a hundred years. In a "post-partisan" world, which would it be?
Yet it would be superficial to judge the whole significance of a political moment by the inadequacy of an evasive word chosen to designate it. When Obama gave his speech after his win in Iowa, there was almost an audible click of history's gears meshing and its engines turning over and beginning to hum. At the very least, the moment crystallized a wide-scale national disgust with what has gone before. The era of two dynasties--of the Bushes and Clintons--seemed to be coming to a close.
Where before it seemed that thick, impenetrable gloomy clouds were rolling across the landscape, a bright and shimmering but so far empty screen has been hung. Soon, something will be projected there. Then we'll know what this season of change--or at least of the word "change"--meant.