It’s the substantive, stupid

2008, you’re no 1992.

“Change Versus More of the Same; It’s the Economy Stupid; Remember Health Care.” This James Carville-inspired ‘haiku’ was the compact marketing tool that summed up Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign 16 years ago. Certainly we got change. Whether that change was good or not, I’ll leave up to you.

So here we are a generation later and change seems to be the watchword again, with the economy and healthcare pulling up the rear. Looking at it, one might be tempted to see similarities and on the surface there are a few. The most glaring is, then as now, we’re about to reach the end of an extended period of Republican control of the White House. Then as now, the economy is front and center in people’s minds. Then as now, the Democrats are discussing universal healthcare as a central part of their campaigns. The surface similarities don’t end there; they just become less important when considering the most important difference: that which was considered new 16 years ago is now considered that which needs to be changed.

It even goes further: that which was once new and representative of change- the Clintons- is now even characterized by some as the status quo. That either Bill or Hillary Clinton would ever be called the status quo by other Democrats is not something I thought I’d ever hear. I recently asked former UM Young Democrats’ President Luke Kosar why he supports Barack Obama and he said, “I just wanted something new.”

The problem is that unlike 1992, the change that’s being touted as the new is really either nothing more than a change of personality or simply all the stuff the Clintons ran on 16 years ago, recycled into a nice new telegenic presence. Symbolism over substance once again. True to type, what seems to energize the Democrat base, and an apparent majority of college students is the symbolism. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: a fairy tale indeed.

When the predominant reasons stated for supporting someone all center around emotional reactions- “He brings us hope”; “I just want something new”; “We want change” -you’re really doing nothing more than advancing the intangible. That someone with a message like Barack Obama’s resonates so strongly with the most unreliable segment of the electorate- the youth vote- is a testament to his personification of the symbolic.

Am I saying that he never presents any specifics in his agenda? Of course not. They’re there on his Web site. But ask anyone who supports him and they never begin with, “I like Barack Obama because of his policy position on.” It’s always an answer that centers on what makes someone feel good. Problem is, feelings don’t endure precisely because they’re almost always emotive in nature. In the end, righting the ship of state will require something far more solid than just feeling good about the idea.

Scott Wacholtz is a graduate student in the history department. He may be contacted at