Change agents … to a degree

Democratic contenders use the ‘C’ word, but who can really deliver it?

About the author:
David Moberg, Ph.D., is a senior editor at In These Times magazine. He has worked for Newsweek and contributed to numerous publications including The Progressive, Salon, the New York Times and the L.A. Weekly.

If Mr. or Ms. Change were a candidate for president, he or she would be the Democratic nominee by now. But we would not know precisely what candidate Change looks like. It’s an idea—or image—that is as ambiguous as it is popular with voters.

Polling and early votes in the presidential race show that Democrats, many independents and some Republicans want a sharp break with the Bush era on both domestic and foreign policy. The numbers also show that they’re ready for a departure from the conservative paradigm that started with President Reagan’s declaration that “government isn’t the solution; government is the problem” and went on to encompass President Clinton’s supine acceptance that “the era of big government is over.”

Now a strong majority sees an accumulation of problems—from uncaring health care to gross economic inequality, from global warming to globalization—that require profound government response. And in the aftermath of a botched war in Iraq and a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, they want a government that is effective, honest and open.

But Americans are notoriously skeptical of government—even if, practically, they support government solutions to many problems. The central challenge for Democrats, as the country opens up to a new progressive paradigm, is to restore trust in government action as a solution.

With the occasional rhetorical exception of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the Republican candidates can be counted on to mercilessly attack the functions of government—except to wage war and prevent abortions. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, derides government provision of health insurance by asking audiences if they want the people in charge of Katrina to make their health-care decisions. Never mind that private insurance companies are already doing everything harmful and restrictive that right-wingers menacingly project would occur with government insurance—and more.

Even self-proclaimed Democratic change advocates, like Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, are cautious about expanding government, especially on the key issue of health insurance. They sense—with some justification from public-opinion polls—that people are still wary of government. And voting patterns complicate the politics of health care, according to pollster Celinda Lake, who does some work for Democrats and nonprofits: Roughly 95 percent of voters have health insurance (even if the insurance or quality of care is at risk), but “non-voting America is uninsured.”

Americans want government that will both protect and empower them, says George Lakoff, the noted political linguist from UC Berkeley. He says that a democratic government is based on empathy and caring for each other.

Government has a moral mission to address issues other than physical security—to make society more fair and to empower individuals through education, research, infrastructure investment, labor law reform and other policies to have more power over their lives. Regarding health care, Lakoff says progressives should argue that protecting people against the inevitable threats to their health is as important as protecting them against national security threats.

Yet because people fear both risk and change, even with current political trends, Lakoff says that Democrats will fare better on health issues if they talk about guaranteeing care—not insurance or coverage.

Lakoff, who argues that care should not be determined by the marketplace or private insurance companies, says that a government single-payer plan is conceptually correct but linguistically flawed.

Instead he describes the progressive alternative as run by doctors and patients, who can choose what care they get and from whom—in order to cut through right-wing fear-mongering about “socialized medicine” (the tag that Republicans will try to stick on any progressive reform, however modest).

But ultimately, even with more persuasive language, Democrats will have to defend the role of government against those who want to shrink it so, as conservative strategist and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist once said, they can drown it in a bathtub. Republican proposals for health care move in precisely the opposite direction, subjecting it to the risks and inequities of the marketplace.

Democrats, like Obama, often say that the best health-care plan would be a single-payer plan, where everyone is guaranteed care and can decide with their doctors the care they need. But none of the leading candidates, including Obama, advocates it.

“Why do so many leaders surrender in advance?” Lakoff asks. “It has to do with neoliberal thought. They’re not talking about the moral issues of care and empathy, but interests.” Democrats too often talk about the needs of children, veterans, the poor, or the middle class, not about a failure of the market or the moral mandate for government as a protector of the entire national community.

Americans distrust government in part because they distrust politics and politicians. Restoring trust in government requires restoring hope in politics.

Obama has staked his candidacy on stirring up hopefulness. His candidacy rests as much on symbolism as policy. His youth, his rhetoric, his newness on the national scene, his background and racial heritage all coalesce into a symbol of a new departure for America that endeared him to younger voters in the Iowa caucuses.

While Obama and former Sen. John Edwards both have attacked lobbyists and the political-influence game, their visions of the new politics needed for change are starkly different.

Obama rejects what he portrays as artificial, partisan divisions. He appeals to the idea that as one America we can all sit down and reason together. Everyone can have a seat at the table and work out a mutually satisfactory solution. It’s a vision that appeals to the young, the disaffected, the politically independent, and non-ideological people who are turned off by conflict. But Obama also appeals to liberals who see him as a leader who can build, as he argues he will do, large majorities that make change possible.

Edwards, who dropped out of the race Wednesday, still holds out hope for change but not without a fight. He sees the pernicious, powerful and greedy hands of big corporations as controlling politics and government, and blocking any change that will challenge their profits and power.

Change will come, Edwards says, by fighting those powerful interests on behalf of the “middle class.” This message appeals to many union members, political progressives and voters who want a politician who understands them. But Edwards does not symbolically em-body change as strongly as Obama does, and his campaign failed to ignite the same passion.

Clinton’s supporters—older, lower-income, more regular Democrats than independents—seem attracted to her as a more familiar figure, identified with the economic boom of the late ’90s. Yet in New Hampshire, women—for whom Clinton embodies change as potentially the first female president—accounted for her narrow win over Obama.

A successful progressive president will have to meld both Edwards’ and Obama’s politics, battling entrenched power and building a wider coalition that seeks new ways in which government can protect and empower them.

That president also will have to confront the need for more money to finance a new “New Deal” and for a fairer sharing of the nation’s prosperity. Reaching those objectives will require progressive taxes, starting with a rollback of the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

But the new president also will need the initiative to more fairly share the common wealth, by better regulating the financial sector, strengthening workers’ rights to organize, reducing America’s imperial footprint and stripping out waste from the private health-care system.

Edwards’ proposals, while weaker than his analysis of corporate power, would protect, empower and bring fairness to the average working family. And Edwards’ analysis of the country’s political reality and what a president will have to do is much more accurate than Obama’s. But Obama’s sometimes mushy message of hope acknowledges the real need to build a broad base of political support for reforms.

Obama and, to some extent, Clinton seem to recognize that their success, will depend on their ability to mobilize enough support for their programs to overcome entrenched interests. The greatest change will come only if this year’s presidential campaign can transform politics into a grassroots movement that lasts beyond the election.

The real faces of Mr. and Ms. Change, therefore, are voters.