“I’m all for progress,” Mark Twain once said. “It’s change I object to.”
Not so the Democrats. Ever since Barack Obama won his early victory in Iowa calling for it, every candidate—Democrat and, less convincingly, Republican—suddenly was for it, too. By the next stop, New Hampshire, Hillary Rodham Clinton was arguing her 35 years as a change agent. Since then, exit polls from Super Tuesday and the Potomac primaries show the top reason Democrats cite in voting their candidate is, “Will bring about needed change.”
Why is this call so powerful? Because it promises relief—succor—from the ruin and shame inflicted on America by the Bush administration: for an unjustified war, departure from rule of law, torture, corruption, a hollowing-out of the treasury. And, everyone yearns to unite as a people and change from years of poisonous polarization.
But calls for change have been heard before. “Throw the rascals out” is an early variant. More recently, in the 2006 congressional election, the Democrats urged us to “vote for change.” We did—but we did not get much change at all; the damage continues.
This time we must ask: What kind of change? Mr. Twain’s humor aside, we need both change and progress, for—at this hinge moment in our history—change without progress is a repeat of the Titanic’s fate, this time amid multiple icebergs. So, Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton, specificity, please.
To get specific, this Democrat suggests: Given our gargantuan task—we need to repair the ruin and forge a New Day—we need responsible change.
“Responsible,” as in mature, serious, accountable, fair; distinguishing right and wrong; requiring a commitment from the citizens; and, importantly, caring not just for one’s own constituency but for the greater good—both of America and the world.
While this proposal seems self-evident—of course we want responsible change—the mantra of change, change, change, growing louder by the day, is not getting any clearer. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, has a point when he says it’s “rhetoric.”
How does demanding responsible change elevate debate? Let us count the ways.
For one, it takes care of the false “change versus experience” dichotomy: Experience can produce prodigious change (e.g., the Founding Fathers) and change untrammeled can devour its own (the French Revolution). Related, though, is the idea that only the young are now entitled to take power. Some Obamamaniacs demand, “Throw the boomers out,” citing our “irresponsible narcissism” in making “a thorough mess of things.” But some boomers (including Hillary) are responsible. And what’s responsible about stereotyping an entire age group, one huge in number? Generational war would subvert the unity we crave—and that Obama holds out.
Mr. Obama, curb your overenthusiastic supporters.
As for the race issue, to his credit, Obama has pitched his campaign above race, yet Bill Clinton sought to pigeonhole Obama as the race candidate, shamefully playing identity politics. However, as this early voting shows, America has evolved—amazingly. No longer is it about identity, as columnist Eugene Robinson says, but character—or, it could be. As the delegate hunt heats up even more, it’s imperative to remember that having both an African American and a woman running for president is a happy problem, to be handled not as a wedge, but responsibly, as a trust.
Out on the campaign trail—state and congressional as well as presidential—injecting the R-word would muscle up all the calls for change.
Emphasizing responsibility as well as rights would help Democrats counter Republican cant about “spendy” liberal habits, especially ultraspendy health care. Republicans must answer for Bush’s betrayal of their party tenets of fiscal responsibility, small government and “compassionate conservatism,” the latter irresponsibly (and immorally) withheld from wounded vets and Katrina victims. The looming crises of climate change, energy independence and infrastructure repair cry out for responsible, bipartisan action—now.
As for the Iraq war, while another R-word—recession—may make the economy the new lead issue, responsible debate requires both be addressed, given the war’s ruinous impact on our national security and good name, as well as on the economy.
On the economy, Hillary Clinton’s call for more responsible corporate behavior (higher taxes, lower executive pay) is welcome. And, as we brace for the financial tremors coming our way, wouldn’t we all profit from more responsible behavior both from Wall Street and spendy fellow citizens?
As for foreign relations, talking responsibility would enable America to lead the world again, not with fear, but mutual respect and moral probity; to return to diplomacy; and to wage war only when absolutely necessary. In other words, statesmanship. Quel change.
And think how cultural life might change, were a more responsible politics to take hold: out with the rogue and anti-hero, in again with Atticus Finch.
Finally, were Hillary to take responsibility for her Iraq vote and express regret for it, as John Edwards did, she might change her faltering campaign. No matter how she spins it, Obama opposed this war early on (and that is primarily why I support him).
For more than half a decade, since Sept. 11, America has been in a chaos of war and fear, mongered by a president unconscionably irresponsible. Such has been the chaos that, as a playwright, my mind’s eye kept fixing on an ancient amphitheater, where scenes of the American idea played out—as tragedy. But when Barack Obama broke through in Iowa, hope—without which America is not America—finally walked onstage.
But neither hope nor unfocused change can reverse tragedy. Candidates, talk responsible change: Responsible gives hope a job and change a direction—upward—to maturity and renaissance.
Carla Seaquist, a playwright based in Gig Harbor, is working on a play titled “Prodigal.” Her op-eds and essays are being collected into a book, “Manufacturing Hope: Post-Sept. 11 Notes on Politics, Culture, and the American Character.”
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company