Will voters get the change they want?

Alan Maass analyzes the outcome of the first contests of the 2008 election year.

VOTERS' DESIRE to see political change has become the undisputed theme of Election 2008 following a strong surge of support for Barack Obama that caused other candidates, even Republicans, to adopt similar rhetoric.

In the January 3 Iowa caucuses, Obama won by an unexpectedly commanding margin, riding the wave of a huge turnout that reflects deeper shifts in U.S. politics--most of all, the popular rejection of the right-wing agenda of war and corporate power personified by George Bush.

At the heart of Obama's success was his call for a "change" from the political status quo in Washington--upheld, according to Obama, by Hillary Clinton as much as George Bush.

In the New Hampshire primary on January 8, Clinton withstood what seemed to be a huge swing behind Obama--her own campaign's polling had her losing by 11 percentage points--to win by a narrow margin similar to where the two candidates stood in the polls prior to Iowa.

In between the two contests, though, Clinton transformed her campaign message, retooling the claims that she was the only candidate with the necessary experience to be president, and embracing Obama's talk about "change."

On the Republican side, the first party of American business is in disarray. Mike Huckabee, a right-wing zealot and favorite of the Christian Right, won big in Iowa. In New Hampshire, the winner was ill-tempered party fossil John McCain. And the runner-up in both places was Mitt Romney, the slick candidate of the party establishment who spent more than all his opponents put together in the first two states.

The bigger news, however, was the Democrats, where the primaries have taken on a historic dimension. Clinton is the first woman with a serious chance at becoming president. And as even the mainstream media noted, one of the whitest states in the U.S. boosted the campaign of an African American for the presidency of a country built on slavery.

But now that talk of political change has become the centerpiece of Election 2008, the question is: what kind of change?

However much her message has changed since Iowa, Clinton remains the candidate of the Democratic establishment. As for Obama, beyond the rhetoric, his political positions are entirely conventional and in line with the mainstream Democratic leadership--as his performance in the last candidates' debate in New Hampshire showed once again.

If, like the November 2006 congressional elections, Obama's surge in the early contests is another sign of the desire for an alternative to conservative domination in U.S. politics, will a candidate who promises to unite "red states and blue states" deliver anything like a real alternative?

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THREE MONTHS ago, Obama was lagging in the polls, well behind Clinton, whose campaign was based on portraying herself as the "inevitable" winner of the Democratic nomination. The initial excitement that had greeted Obama's candidacy when he first announced it seemed to dissipate as he stuck to evasive rhetoric and refused to take any strong stand.

But as the first primaries approached, Obama started gaining support, particularly among younger voters, for seeming to offer a fresh alternative to insiders like Clinton who bragged about their "experience" in "getting things done" in Washington.

The conventional wisdom was that Clinton had the loyalty of much of the Democratic Party machine, and this would trump the enthusiasm of Obama supporters when it came to the nitty-gritty work of getting people to caucus or vote.

But in Iowa, such calculations were swamped by an unprecedented turnout--nearly twice as many people attended the Democratic caucuses as in 2004. A majority were participating for the first time, and they went overwhelmingly for Obama. In exit polls, participants said their biggest concerns were about the economy, health care and the Iraq war, not the experience or "electability" of the candidates.

The big numbers also benefited John Edwards, whose populist, anti-corporate rhetoric sharpened even more in the weeks before the caucuses.

But Obama gained the most. The Iowa vote cracked the perception that, however much Democratic voters might admire Obama, they would cast their ballots for Clinton because she was more "electable."

Clinton's win in New Hampshire undercut this momentum. The next tests come in South Carolina and Nevada--and after that, Super Tuesday on February 5. Bigger states like California and New York moved their elections up this year to have more weight in the primaries, and the way the race looks now, many more voters may yet have a say before the die is cast for the nominee.

However the coming weeks shape up, the early primary results have an importance because they reflect an underlying political dynamic--the widespread hope for a change from an era of conservative politics promoted by the Bush White House and associated with establishment Democrats like Clinton.

Four years ago, Howard Dean--the one leading contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination who openly challenged the Bush White House on the Iraq war--was the favorite to win the Iowa caucuses. He came in a dismal third.

The winner was John Kerry, the choice of the party establishment. The mainstream media analysis was unanimous--Democratic voters had passed over the candidate who more closely represented what they believed in to support the one who was "electable" and appealed to conservative voters.

The consensus about Iowa in 2008 couldn't be more different. Even Clinton, in her concession speech, adopted the "change" mantra. "We have seen an unprecedented turnout here in Iowa," she said, "and that's good news because today we're sending a clear message that we're going to have change, and that change will be a Democratic president in the White House in 2009."

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WHATEVER ELSE they disagree on, almost no one thinks Clinton is wrong about the party affiliation of the next president--and that conclusion was underlined by the bizarre creep show that the Republican primaries have become.

One new frontrunner, anointed in Iowa, was Huckabee, a former Baptist minister and governor of Arkansas who doesn't believe in evolution and regularly displays a George Bush-like non-command of basic facts about the world.

Huckabee distinguished himself from the other Republican ghouls by acting like he has a sense of humor, but this man of "compassion" claims he will expel 12 million undocumented immigrants from the U.S. within months of becoming president--a promise that won him the endorsement of the founder of the anti-immigrant Minutemen vigilantes.

At the New Hampshire debate last weekend, he declared that the real problem with $100-a-barrel oil prices was that they showed the American people had been "enslaved" by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez--as well as various "Middle East dictators" who Huckabee didn't name, perhaps because the U.S. government supports most of them.

Yet this crackpot was able to trounce one-time frontrunner Mitt Romney in Iowa--despite Romney dipping into his personal fortune to fill the airwaves with increasingly desperate attack ads.

With Huckabee unable to count on a base of evangelical Christians in New Hampshire, the beneficiary of Romney's defeat in Iowa was McCain, the Republican presidential contender who has bound himself most completely to Bush's catastrophic occupation of Iraq. A couple days before the New Hampshire vote, McCain was asked about the Iraq occupation possibly lasting 50 years--he responded that 100 years was okay with him.

So coming out of the first two primary contests, the presidential nomination of the Republican Party is up for grabs among a motley collection of mean-spirited law-and-order fanatics, anti-immigrant bigots and warmongers.

This is the consequence of the crisis of the Bush administration--mired in Iraq, distrusted for its shredding of the Constitution and responsible for the steadily worsening mess of an economy.

The dissatisfaction with Bush and the Republicans that manifested itself in the Democratic landslide in the November 2006 congressional elections hasn't gone away, despite the failure of the Democratic majority in Congress to make good on any of its promises.

Republican leaders--the honest ones, anyway--know they are in for a hiding on Election Day 2008. As Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), once considered a possible contender for the nomination, said last year, the Republicans have "been hijacked by incompetency--I think that's what has driven the Republican Party right off the cliff...This election next year will begin a reorientation of our party--both parties, American politics. The American people will demand it...Elections are about self-corrections, and we will self-correct."

As the Wall Street Journal wrote before the Iowa caucuses--in an article headlined "An Epochal Battle"--"This year marks the end of what can be considered the Reagan-Bush era in American politics that began when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. In six of the last seven general elections, a candidate named Reagan or Bush has appeared atop a national ticket, defining a brand of internationally engaged conservatism that has been the dominant strain in American politics for more than a generation."

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THE MAIN reason behind the swelling support for Obama that transformed the terms of the campaign is a strong hope for change among an electorate fed up with seven years of George Bush and arrogant Republican rule. But given the policies that Obama and the other Democrats actually stands for, those hopes will be disappointed.

Obama's rhetorical appeals disguise more moderate political positions--positions which are, in fact, closer to the Republican agenda that people reject in growing numbers than either he, his fellow Democrats or the media that cover them ever let on.

On the central issue of the Iraq war, for example, Obama talks about opposing the invasion in 2003, before he became a senator, in contrast to Clinton, who voted for authorizing the war. But he has far less to say about his votes to fund the war in subsequent years.

At the debate in New Hampshire last weekend, the opening discussion was dominated by scary posturing among all the Democrats over their willingness to launch a surprise missile strike on Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden.

It fell to Clinton, rather than Obama or Edwards, to point out that the Pakistani government ought to at least be warned once the assault was underway--lest it mistake incoming missiles for an attack by rival India, which also has nuclear weapons.

Among the three leading candidates left in the Democratic race, the real differences are not so much about policy as "tone, style and generational image," wrote the Washington Post's Dan Balz.

For example, on the issue of health care, both Clinton and Edwards criticize Obama for putting forward a plan on health care that would leave some Americans without coverage. But Clinton and Edwards want to close this gap with mandates that would require the uninsured to buy substandard policies from private insurers.

For all their verbal skirmishing, the health care proposals of all three have something more basic in common--acceptance of the role of private insurance in the system and rejection of any meaningful steps toward a single-payer system that offers a real solution to the health care crisis.

Then there's the role of money--always the hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of American elections.

Obama and Clinton have broken all fundraising records for a competitive race, taking in more than $100 million each in donations. They aren't all in small contributions, either. Corporate America has shifted from its traditional first choice of the Republicans, and poured money into Democratic campaigns, with Clinton doing the best of any candidate in the "Wall Street primary."

At the same time, corporate lobbyists are carrying out what the political newsletter The Hill called the "infiltration" of Election 2008. Thus, in spite of Obama's claim that he refuses contributions from lobbyists or political action committees, among his top campaign staff are three registered lobbyists who not long ago represented dozens of corporations, including Wal-Mart, BP and Lockheed Martin.

According to Obama spokespeople, these aides aren't lobbying now, during the campaign, but that doesn't mean they won't again in the future--or that their past work didn't have something to do with their decision to seek their current positions.

ALL OF the major candidates--Obama, Edwards, even Clinton--have shifted their rhetoric to the left in reaction to the obvious voter discontent. But their actual policy proposals and political positions remain in the business-friendly mold adopted by Bill Clinton the last time the Democrats were in the White House.

This is why the Republicans--even though they are all but certain to be crushed in November--have still been able to set the terms of the political debate on key questions.

In the past, abortion and equal marriage rights were the hot-button issues. This year, the Republicans have seized on immigration as the one question where their scapegoating might win some support. Because the Democrats refuse to pose an alternative, hard-right positions on immigration once considered on the fringe are now common ground for both parties.

Obama's strong showing in the early primaries will be seen as a sign that people are voting for their hopes that the next president will make fundamental changes in Washington. But Obama isn't any more likely than Clinton or the other Democrats to meet these hopes.

The real alternative to the right-wing agenda has to be built from the ground up--in struggles of working people fighting for what they deserve.