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Change Agent

I spent Friday and Saturday night at the Emerging Progressives Forum, an event about which I will have a lot to say over the next couple of days. It has been an incredibly thought provoking event, a chance to revive old friendships, meet fellow activists, and talk with some big shots that don't usually mingle with the ground.

One of the big shots was Rahm Emanuel, the late Congressman Matsui's replacement as chair of the DCCC. Emanuel spoke, at some length, about the central failing of the Kerry 2004 message: Kerry failed to establish himself as an agent of change. Emanuel's explanation is that, since 1992 when he was a staffer in the Clinton campaign, each election has been won by the party more able to articulate a message of change. In 1992, Clinton was the party of change. In 1994, the GOP insurgency was far more dynamic. In 1996, Clinton, despite being the incumbent, was able to run as the agent of change ("building a bridge to the 21st century") against Bob Dole, who was still driving his horse and buggy across the bridge to the 20th century. In 1998, the Democrats were again the change agents, the party that wanted to "moveon" from the impeachment. In 2000, the Bush campaign was able to brand itself as change - the only time Gore experienced a bump in the polls was when he broke from the past, declaring himself "his own man." 2002 was muddled by 9/11, but there was certainly a dynamism that underlay the GOP.

That brings us to 2004. I haven't seen the figures Emanuel cited, but he claimed that over a quarter of the electorate identified Bush as the agent of change in the 2004 election. That's depressing, but not particularly shocking - the revolutionary aspect of pseudo-conservatism makes it look dynamic, and Kerry wasn't able to break through the initial credibility barrier to effectively lay out his vision for the future. People didn't trust him, both because of what his campaign let become the focus of the election and the effective viciousness of the Bush operation. Despite the Bush campaign's constant invocation of "steadfastness," "resolve," and "not changing horses in the middle of a stream," people thought of those as character traits and "moral values," not an endorsement of Bush's particular policy agenda.

Emanuel's hypothesis isn't a mantra, a key that opens the electoral lockbox. But there is no doubt that we need to reclaim the mantle of dynamism. About twelve hours after listening to Emanuel's explanation, I read Jim VandeHei and Michael Fletcher in the Washington Post, Bush Says Election Ratified Iraq Policy. Bush claims that his re-election was an endorsement of his policy agenda, particularly in Iraq:

President Bush said the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath.

"We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections," Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. "The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."
How's that for change? This information needs to be force fed to people that think Bush is a change agent. When John Kerry said a vote for Bush was a vote for four more years of the same, Bush silently nodded in agreement. It's a shame he didn't tell his voters that.

Emanuel's hypothesis also has interesting implications for the social security debate. We are basically the party of stasis on social security, the conservative party that realizes the program works well and wants to preserve it, while every Bush invocation of "crisis" makes him a change agent. We shouldn't run away from that, but we need to make clear that preserving social security is the dynamic position. I'll try to throw out some ideas on the matter later today.


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