McCain vies with Obama over ‘change’
The campaign argument could be decided by which group of voters shows up at the polls.
The presidential race boils down to a fierce battle over one word: change.Skip to next paragraph
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For most of the campaign, Democrat Barack Obama has ridden his theme of “Change we can believe in” to victory over his primary opponents and to a fairly consistent lead in the national polls.
But since the Republican convention earlier this month, John McCain has tried to rip that mantle from Senator Obama, switching his own motto from being the candidate of “experience” to the “maverick who will bring change to Washington.”
The McCain camp has also changed tactics, unapologetically going negative with campaign ads that both Republicans and Democrats have criticized for being full of distortions. It appears to be working: The race is now neck and neck, with some polls showing Senator McCain ahead.
The Obama campaign, in turn, is beginning to hit back, attacking McCain as a tired Washington insider with close ties to lobbyists and deploying Bill and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. The campaign has changed its motto to “For the change we need,” and it is being urged by worried Democrats to go as negative as the McCain camp has – in a way, playing by the rules of the negative playbook that Obama had said he wanted to rewrite.
The ferocity of the fight over who is the better champion of change is one more indication that 2008 could be one of those rare defining elections that ushers in a new era in American politics.
“This is a critical election and it could be a realigning one as far as the [nation’s] agenda and the nature of the electorate,” says Doug Muzzio, a political analyst at Baruch College of the City University of New York. “The election will ultimately turn on which electorate comes out to vote – the one that’s existed in the last two elections [of older conservatives] or a new generation, an electorate of younger voters, the Obama voters.”
Different definitions of ‘change’
Change is a simple word, but it has many different meanings. Each candidate is championing his own definition. McCain is casting himself as a reformer of the Washington status quo – a man who can clean up corruption and bring more competent leadership to what already exists inside the Beltway, according to Barbara True-Weber, a political analyst at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
“McCain is appealing for greater competency in foreign affairs, in particular military policy, and that is certainly his strong suit,” says Professor True-Weber. “The idea is that Washington is fundamentally sound.... all it needs is some tinkering and reform and to get back to basic principles.”
Obama, on the other hand, is touting a “fundamentally different kind of change,” based on a transformation of the Washington status quo to a more global, high-tech, and efficient government, says True-Weber.
“Because of Obama’s youth and background,... he understands that the fundamental ways of communicating are changing and that the world is much more global and that there are different modes of decisionmaking. He appeals to young people because they see the world that way, too.”
But for the electorate, it can be difficult to sort out which kind of “change” each candidate represents – especially amid a hailstorm of negative campaigning. A Gallup Poll released Sept. 12 found that since the Republican convention, McCain has started to close the gap on voters’ perceptions as to which candidate “would be effective in changing the way government in Washington works.” Obama is still ahead, with 61 percent, but 54 percent of adults see McCain as an effective change agent, too. That has created some anxiety among Democrats.