Change and “Safe Change”

Greg Sargent argues today, quoting no less an authority than Stan Greenberg, at whose feet I often sit for enlightenment, that Mitt Romney’s recent polling gains, and with it a renewed chance to win the election, is attributable to his success in the first presidential debate in presenting himself as the candidate of “change.”

For months [Romney] operated from the flawed assumption that he could win by making the race all about Obama. Romney began surging only when he broke through at the debate with an affirmative case for his own agenda — because voters began entertaining the idea that Romney represents change, Greenberg says.

Obama was caught flat footed by this at the first debate, and didn’t make a clear enough case that he would pursue major changes himself in his second term. This was in striking contrast to his successful convention speech, in which he did lay out a case for major second term change, via investments in clean energy, manufacturing, the auto industry and education.

Greenberg says his polling suggests the American people favor Obama’s vision of future change — when it is clearly defined for them. If it isn’t, Romney will become the candidate of change in this race. “These are tough times — voters want to know that there is the possibility of real change, that the big issues facing the middle class will be addressed,” Greenberg says.

Now I couldn’t agree more than Obama needs to improve significantly in the ability to define a second-term agenda (something he didn’t do terribly well even in his convention speech). After all, you can’t have a successful “two futures” strategy without presenting your own vision of the future. And I also agree that the name most glaringly missing from Obama’s words in the first debate was “Bush,” in terms of depicting Romney’s entire agenda as a leaner and meaner version of W’s.

But that doesn’t, in my opinion, mean that Obama cannot and should not also go after Romney’s radicalism very directly–the “leaner and meaner” part of the equation of Romney = Bush.

Romney, much like Bush in 2000, is presenting himself as the candidate not just of change, but of safe change–the hyper-confident moderate technocrat, who will assess the country’s challenges each day without fear or favor, and do what is best without worrying about his party’s “base” or the radical ideologues who represent it. Like W., Romney is touting a reputation (in Mitt’s case, a bit questionable and long in the tooth) for working with Democrats, and is also asserting a degree of empathy and “compassion” notably lacking in the GOP these days. This ingredient of his latest self-presentation is just as important to his cause as the mantle of “change.”

So while it may seem complicated for Obama to label Romney as the candidate of the same-old, same-old, and also as a radical, it is both accurate and effective. The two candidates have different agendas for the future, and while one is well-tailored to tough current challenges, the other is essentially an effort to advance the worst qualities of Richard Nixon and the worst policies of George W. Bush and Barry Goldwater.

It shouldn’t be that terribly hard to distinguish a reactionary from a change agent. “Change” isn’t always good when it’s not “safe,” and a better alternative is readily at hand.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.