Barack Obama just made history by becoming our first African-American Presidential nominee. But Obama also accomplished something else last night, something completely unintentional that Democrats haven't done successfully in a long, long time. He compelled his Republican opponent to use his frame for a change -- literally.
By all accounts, there was nothing unexpected about last night's speeches from the three Presidential hopefuls. McCain's speech was unconvincing and wholly uninspired. Clinton refused to acknowledge Obama's victory and continued to talk about herself, even when pretending to talk about others: "While I traveled our country talking about how I wanted to help you, time and again, you reached out to help me, to grab my hand or grip my arm, to look into my eyes and tell me, don't quit, keep fighting, stay in this race for us." And Obama was his usual poised, eloquent self as he graciously celebrated Clinton, jabbed at McCain, and fired up the crowd once again by talking about "our time to offer a new direction for the country we love."
With the exception of the press being much more critical of McCain than usual, these speeches appeared to be merely the next step in a seemingly endless 17-month primary marathon. And yet McCain played right into Obama's hands by devoting his entire speech to countering Obama's message of "change" with his own message of, well, "change."
McCain appeared in front of a green board with the message "A Leader We Can Believe In" scrawled across it, which blogger Attaturk quipped made him look "like the cottage cheese in a lime jello salad." This was an obvious ploy by McCain to repackage Obama's "Change We Can Believe In," coupled with the slightly subtler green, a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Within the first couple of minutes, McCain began talking about change, which, as Tim Russert later noted on MSNBC, was a word he reiterated 32 times (33 if you count "climate change").
"This is, indeed, a change election," McCain said. "No matter who wins this election, the direction of this country is going to change dramatically. But, the choice is between the right change and the wrong change; between going forward and going backward." At this point, McCain grimaced awkwardly, perhaps because deep down he knew he was reinforcing Obama's message.
What exactly did McCain mean by the "right" and "wrong" change? Well, that was really where McCain's rhetoric began to sound like a stump speech for Obama:
"The right change recognizes that many of the policies and institutions of our government have failed. They have failed to keep up with the challenges of our time because many of these policies were designed for the problems and opportunities of the mid to late 20th Century, before the end of the Cold War; before the revolution in information technology and rise of the global economy. The right kind of change will initiate widespread and innovative reforms in almost every area of government policy -- health care, energy, the environment, the tax code, our public schools, our transportation system, disaster relief, government spending and regulation, diplomacy, the military and intelligence services. Serious and far-reaching reforms are needed in so many areas of government to meet our own challenges in our own time."
McCain's use of "change" clearly shows that Obama now controls the discourse of this election.
As George Lakoff wrote in Don't Think of an Elephant, conservatives have long been masters of framing politics. They use choice words and phrases to indicate how various issues reflect what their beliefs mean to them (think "tax relief," "partial-birth abortion," or "No Child Left Behind") while making them more palatable to voters. What's more, conservatives have devoted the time and millions in think tank money to coming up with these simple phrases because they know that once they create a catchy frame, the media will hammer it home into the public's consciousness.
Obama is certainly not the first candidate to use the word "change." Nor am I suggesting that "change" has Orwellian connotations of doublespeak (think conservative frame "Clear Skies Act"). But Obama did claim "change" first on the campaign trail, and he has made it his central message. In fact, it's become a perfect progressive frame, as it reflects Obama's "outsider" status; the need for change in leadership; and more importantly, the need for change on every issue from the environment to foreign policy to civil liberties to economics. In other words, it's this single, simple frame that has appealed to and united progressives of every stripe behind our presumptive Democratic nominee.
So when Clinton tried to shed "experience" for Obama's trendier message--which she did repeatedly throughout her campaign and as recently as two days ago--it came off as overt posturing. And when McCain attempted to tap into Obama's "change" momentum last night, to the point that he criticized Obama with the trope "That's not change we can believe in," it fell flat, as indicated by the dead audience response and the incredibly unfavorable press. (Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson noted it was "like watching the out-takes from an Andy Rooney kvetch.")
McCain even tried to end his speech on a bi-partisan note of "change." He said, "This kind of cooperation has made all the difference at crucial turns in our history. It has given us hope in difficult times. It has moved America forward. And that, my friends, is the kind of change we need right now." Try as he might, McCain won't be able to repackage or reclaim "change," mostly because every time he says the word we now think of Obama.