Presidential candidate Mitt Romney suddenly last week co-opted the mantra "agent of change" that Barack Obama proudly used to carry him to the presidency four years ago and that he had sustained into this election cycle. "We recognize this is a year with a big choice, and the American people want to see big changes," Romney said during a speech in Ames, Iowa. "Together we can bring real change to this country." What both the Romney and Obama campaigns have missed and continue to ignore is that Americans want stability in their lives, in their politics and in the world. It's not change they want to vote for, it's stability. They want to vote for the candidate who promises to develop and support an economic framework that recognizes the realities they confront in their day-to-day lives while promising more stability and less disruption in the future.
Change, by definition, equals disruption; disruption equals collapse before a rebuilding process can begin. A message of stability is an argument that the rebuilding process has begun -- a promise of continuity and consistency that progresses toward a more positive future. Change, like therapy, requires the destruction of engrained beliefs and behavior before new behaviors and belief systems can be introduced. President Obama rode to victory in 2008 by convincing half the electorate that new governmental behaviors and systems were necessary to move the country forward. Four years later, Americans have had more than their fair share of change and they're ready for the presidential candidate who they believe is an agent of stability rather than continued change.
By redefining himself as a change agent, Romney instantly transformed himself from the candidate who many considered the best option to return the nation to a time of greater stability, into a candidate who as president would bring further chaos and disruption. Romney's Iowa speech is another in the long line of gifts the Romney campaign has presented to President Obama throughout this campaign.
Positioning Mitt Romney as a change agent is incredibly misguided. In the past 12 years, Americans have experienced unprecedented disruption and chaos. The impeachment of President Clinton; the Bush/Gore contested election and Bush presidency; 9/11; weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi War; the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing; religious extremism; the war in Afghanistan; atrocities in Africa; the economic collapse of 2009 and subsequent 'bail out' debates; too big to fail; steroids; sex-related scandals; the election of the first African-American president and intensified political polarization; the Arab Spring and "Occupy" movements; debates over climate change, abortion, contraception, gay rights, health care, gun control, immigration and illegal immigrants, education, unionization, states' rights and taxes. They have also experienced unprecedented hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters in the United States and around the world.
Their government has become dysfunctional, refusing to place the needs of the people's long-term well-being ahead of the short-term realities and interests of the powers-that-be. Which candidate, they ask, is most likely to lead a government that will build new institutions to replace the old, and that offers a clear vision of what the future will bring and how to manage the changes that are already taking place. We want to believe change has already begun, change we can depend on to deliver a stable future. Some voters clearly want a government that returns us to the 1950s, before Rowe v. Wade, before Brown v. Board of Education, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A return to those days will, without question, lead to civil unrest and public demonstrations that would make the Occupy movement pale by comparison.
What Americans really want is a president who promises to lead a government that will protect them from terror and that will enable and empower them to lead their lives in peace, without the threat of undue taxation and unjust rules of law. The presidency of Barack Obama has achieved those fundamental principles although he has failed to achieve many progressive goals and his presidency has contributed to further political polarization.
But in the past four years, change has occurred in small pockets where new models were implemented, tested and proven. A new order has been established out of the ashes of a collapsed economy and an overly aggressive global presence. The failures of President Obama have not been failures of mission, style, culture or actions. He failed to build a constituency of support among his detractors. He further endangered the status quo and the establishment without reinforcing support among his base. When the conservative right rose up and attacked him, he had no core constituency in the political center to protect and defend him. Until recently.
By aligning himself with conservative politicians who seek a radical return to a government of restrictive human rights that will almost certainly lead to a civil revolution, Mitt Romney alienated many in the center and left. Yet, his promise of a return to economic stability enabled him to retain his presidential credibility among many voters, especially those who remain undecided. By promising in the final debate to carry forward the international and military policies of his opponent, he reaffirmed to many that his presidency would not impose global disruption and chaos. A smart move although it also reaffirmed to many his lack of character.
But what will ultimately prove to be the most strategically stupid move of this campaign is Romney's decision less than two weeks before November 6 to become the agent of change, at just the time when Americans most want stability. It elevates a core message of the Obama strategy: "Let's move forward, maintain our momentum and continuity. A vote for Obama is a vote for stability and progress." Ultimately, it's not change that voters want. It's stability, and Romney's misguided repositioning as this campaign's agent of change will prove to be the decision that swings undecided voters into the Democratic column.