Just to cite a few recent examples from the campaign trail in Iowa and elsewhere:
Mitt Romney advises, "I don't think you change Washington from the inside."
In Iowa, Hillary Clinton puts on an event called "Working for Change, Working for You."
And Barack Obama grinds along on his "Stand for Change" tour. There we are again: change, change, change. On it goes, the great mantra of Campaign '08.
Would some change-minded candidate or other kindly inform the American people what this business amounts to? Change what into what? We're durned if we know. Possibly, the matter calls for each voter to take a pencil and fill in the blank.
Modern politics, especially modern presidential politics, is an inherently vacuous enterprise, and you see why when you read or listen to the candidates, most of whom you might mentally depict in robes and pointed hat, like Mickey Mouse in "Fantasia." A bolt of lightning, and behold -- change! It seems to suffice. But it shouldn't. It's patronizing as well as counterproductive.
When a candidate goes around babbling about "change," you sort of infer he or she hasn't had a fresh idea in a while. It is not that many things -- perpetually -- don't deserve freshening and refurbishing. They do. We all do. A campaign based on "change," nevertheless, is a campaign without content; one that merely says, We don't like things right now.
A lot of people don't. Even warm, or warmish, friends of the Bush administration wish the whole thing were over and the war in Iraq wrapped up. The apostles of "change" make it all sounds so easy. Just vote for them. They'll "change" things, all right. How they'll do it, they tend not to say. No one, including Barack Obama, believes that a President Obama would miraculously bring us all together again. But he implies he can. No one believes -- well, maybe Hillary Clinton does, actually -- that Hillary Clinton can unknot the tangles in our system of health care delivery. But she implies she can.
The "change" agenda that drives presidential politics is an agenda of rejection rather than affirmation. Nothing wrong with rejection when something -- pick your own target -- requires it. On the other hand, a "change" agenda never, save in the broadest terms, suggests how things should be made to look, following the act of rejection. We want "change"! Rarely does any more need saying. Rarely is any more said.
It's too bad. We're storing up trouble for ourselves down the line. Or, to put it more precisely, the candidates are stirring it up for themselves. They're riding for a fall.
When you get elected as an agent of "change," and it turns out, after the inauguration, that you never intended to change everything, or you found it necessary to cut deals with the opponents of "change" (in order to make other changes, naturally), or unforeseen matters intervened, or oh, you know. You didn't anyway meet all the hopes and expectations. Maybe you got a reality dose: a sense of what's possible in Washington and what, by the widest stretch of the imagination, isn't possible at all.
A kind of native cynicism afflicts democratic politics everywhere and no doubt will do so always. See, you can't believe those guys! the cynic exclaims, with knowing smile and sideways glance
Politics, being a human enterprise, needs all the help it can get, all the idealism it can muster. What it really doesn't need, if it's to work at all well, is more ambiguity of the sort that encourages each voter to see in a particular vote-seeker -- yes, his very own dream. It's bad for politics, this kind of proceeding. It's bad for the constituents of the politicians. Though in a world of 24/7 news and commentary and conjecture on all things under the sun, you understand -- a little -- why the politicians retreat into bromides and slogans and glittering generalities. There's wiliness in it: the concept of self-preservation elevated high above all competing considerations, such as the public weal.
"Don't watch what we say, watch what we do," Attorney General John Mitchell is said to have counseled early opponents of the Nixon administration in which he served. A little cynical, yes -- a little deceptive. But as advice to voters -- not bad, really.