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Changes (Turn and Face the Strain)

As the Democratic presidential candidates have engineered the primary race into a contest of "change vs. experience," and representing change has emerged as the more desirable quality, liberal commentators are struggling to divine which candidate is the true "change candidate," … Read More

By / December 18, 2007

As the Democratic presidential candidates have engineered the primary race into a contest of "change vs. experience," and representing change has emerged as the more desirable quality, liberal commentators are struggling to divine which candidate is the true "change candidate," and which are just pretenders. Paul Krugman, who's been engaged in a pissing match with the Obama campaign for a few weeks, goes so far as to excoriate Obama as "the anti-change candidate" — not just not as profound a change candidate as Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, but an outright anti-change candidate.

This is an exceedingly silly way to talk. Inasmuch as every candidate from either party would govern differently from the way that Bush has, they all represent change. When people speak of wanting change, they're obviously using "change" as a proxy for the implementation of their preferences; nobody wants change for its own sake, regardless of what's being changed.

If you think the problem with the Bush administration has been its timidity in arrogating powers to the executive branch and its overly-cautious management of international conflicts, Rudy Giuliani is your change candidate. Alternatively, if the change you're hoping for is the abolition of most departments of the federal government, Ron Paul is your change candidate — and arguably a more radical change candidate on that dimension than any other candidate on any other dimension. For Krugman, health care is the most important issue — "[a]s health care goes, so goes the rest of the progressive agenda" — hence for him, the candidate willing to fight most aggressively for his preferred health care policy is the real change candidate.

The primary change Barack Obama is promoting is a change in political discourse and the procedures of governance. He may be misguided, he may be naive or unrealistic, but whatever the status of the practicality and justification of his agenda, it's just different from the focus of the Edwards and Clinton campaigns. Another way of putting this is that Barack Obama, unlike Edwards or Clinton, puts greater priority on procedural justice than liberal domestic policy.

I think that's a wise position — particular policies can be enacted and dismantled with the variation in partisan control of government, but corrosion of the system of government itself is very difficult to repair — and part of the reason I'm supporting Obama despite my disagreement with a lot of liberal domestic policy. (In concrete terms, Obama is by far the likeliest candidate to establish something like a Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and to carry it off successfully.)

Standing for change as a good in and of itself is a vacuous position — one which all the Democratic candidates have postured around unconvincingly. Conversely, even though it's de rigeur right now to bash experience, experience is at least a quantifiable asset. (On this score, though, I'm not sure why Hillary Clinton goes unchallenged. She's spent less time in elective office than Obama and barely more than Edwards, and had a less distinguished legal career than either of them — I, for one, would much rather put "law professor" or "successful trial lawyer" than "partner in the Rose Law Firm" on my resume.)

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