Here’s the strange thing: If we are in a political "season of change" and "change" is now the word most used by presidential candidates, change isn’t exactly valued when it comes to presidential runs themselves. Take, for example, the Democratic debate moderated by ABC News’ Charlie Gibson a week ago. In that mere hour and a half of television, Gibson, his TV sidekicks like George Stephanopoulos, and the four candidates managed to use the "C" word some 48 times — being "agents of" or "power voices for change," "making," "delivering," "producing," "advocating for," "fighting for," "believing deeply in," "loving," even "embody[ing] change." In the process, they just about ground change into the dust. But lurking in the background was another use of that word — as an accusation — and it went unnoticed.
Here’s Hillary Clinton, for example, launching an attack on Barack Obama:
"You know, I think that, two weeks ago, you criticized Senator Edwards in saying that he was unelectable because he had changed positions over the course of four years, that four years ago he wasn’t for universal health care; now, he is. Well, you’ve changed positions within three years on, you know, a range of issues that you put forth when you ran for the Senate, and now you have changed."
To which, Obama had to respond: "I have been entirely consistent in my position on health care…"
This is typical of our electoral moment and it’s another little legacy of the Bush era. You can probably thank Karl Rove for this one because in 2004, handling a notoriously single-minded, inflexible, and stubborn candidate, he managed to turn the "C" word into a curse no one is likely to forget. To change, you remember, was actually to "flip-flop." And if there’s one thing in the post-2004 era that no candidate can now afford to be charged with, it’s flipping and flopping like a fish on the deck of a ship.
John Edwards, for instance, recently changed his position on Iraq in a significant way. While still in the Iowa caucus race, he called for the withdrawal within 10 months of all American troops in Iraq (except for a few thousand soldiers left to guard the Baghdad embassy), including the trainers of Iraqi troops. Previously, like the other two leading candidates, he had only called for the withdrawal of American "combat troops" who make up perhaps half of the U.S. troop contingent. He was not challenged on this in the debate, but had he been, he would surely have little choice but to claim that he, too, had somehow been "consistent," that he hadn’t flip-flopped on Iraq.
As a result, the "change" candidates of 2008, wielding the "C" word for an audience "fired up" for… well, you know what, so just shout it out… must themselves swear that they are "consistent" in their positions, that, in short, they do not change. The one thing these candidates of change can’t go out in public and say is something like: "Well, that was 2002, but in the intervening years, I’ve done a lot of thinking, had new experiences, grown, matured… changed, and so has my position on [you fill in the issue]."
Change may, or may not, turn out to be the Pied Piper of 2008 for the American voter, but it surely will remain the Scylla and Charybdis of twenty-first century presidential politics.