MILFORD, NH -- Labor Day is, to be sure, an artificial dividing point for American politics. It’s not as if voters who were uninterested Friday suddenly become, on Tuesday, voluminous consumers of information. But somehow it’s become a custom to believe that, before Labor Day, it’s “early.” After Labor Day, it’s – real time. Before Labor Day, campaigns test messages; after Labor Day, they’ve settled on one. A message, basically, is a reason. It’s a reason dressed up in the stale language of politics – “change,” “hope,” “meeting challenges” “stand up” – but somewhere in there, an argument about a reason lurks.
In New Hampshire yesterday, Hillary Clinton’s reason became crystal clear: she said she was candidate of both change and experience – banners helpfully repeated the message in case it was obscure. In one phrase, Clinton performs a bit of jujitsu: it’s true that voters perceive her as a change agent. Now she wants them to believe that she is enough of a change agent. Clinton will repeat the “change and experience” mantra throughout the fall. Voters seem to be giving her the benefit of the doubt right now, so she’ll try to and reinforce these sentiments with what will probably be a set of fairly bold policy proposals. "I know some people think you have to choose between change and experience," she said. "Well with me you don't have to choose. I have spent my who life fighting for change."
Obama, speaking this morning in Manchester, has honed a sharp and distinctive counter-message. In a phrase, it’s “Turn The Page.” It means that real change requires something more than what Hillary Clinton (and even the Democrats) can offer. Obama’s message is a dare to voters: if you want change, choose me. “As bad as George Bush has been,” he said this morning, “it’s going to take more than a change of parties in the White House to truly turn this country around.” Special interest politics “was there before they got to the Washington, and if you I don’t stand up and challenge it, it will be there long after they leave.”
Obama said he’s running for president because “to meet America’s challenges, changing parties isn’t change enough. We need something new. We need to turn the page.”
He takes on his foil: “So let’s be clear – there are a lot of people who have been in Washington longer than me, who have better connections and go to the right dinner parties and know how to talk the Washington talk. Well, I might not have the experience Washington likes, but I believe I have the experience America needs right now. “
At the end of his speech, he returned to his thema primus*: “if you want a country that no longer sees itself as a collection of Blue and Red States; if you want a president who can lead a United States of America; then I ask you to believe in this campaign.”
Clinton assumes that voters will perceive her as enough of change agent; Obama’s is that voters will not. She also assumes that his lack of foreign policy experience will matter to voters; Obama assumes that enough voters will count it as a plus.
Is it too early to predict that, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, if the political argument is about change, then Obama and John Edwards have an edge. If the argument is more complex; if it’s about experience or something else, then Clinton has an edge?
* = I made this phrase up.
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