In the past two weeks, a fight has broken out in the Democratic primaries between John Edwards and Barack Obama (with Paul Krugman and Hillary Clinton playing supporting roles for Edwards) over the best way to effect change. An excerpt from his closing argument in Iowa:
We need a president who will take these powers on and fight to get you your voice back, and your government back. We need a president who is going to fight every day to make sure that all Americans can find good jobs, save for the future, and be guaranteed health care and retirement security. We need a president who is going to lift up the middle class…
None of this is going to be easy. I hear all these candidates talking about how we’re going to bring about the big, bold change that America needs. And I hear some people saying that they think we can sit at a table with drug companies, oil companies and insurance companies, and they will give their power away. That is a fantasy. We have a fight in front of us. We have a fight for the future of this country. And the change we need will not happen easily. We need someone who is going to step into that arena on your behalf, someone who is ready for that fight. [my italics]
Obviously, Edwards has been emphasizing this time around that he is a fighter. He makes clear that he thinks change comes from fighting – that change must be pushed through and forced upon those who would oppose it. He believes the moment for force and fighting is now – in a rhetorical sense at least. The model he looks to is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
It’s change that won’t just come from more anger at Washington or turning up the heat on Republicans. There’s no shortage of anger and bluster and bitter partisanship out there. We don’t need more heat. We need more light. I’ve learned in my life that you can stand firm in your principles while still reaching out to those who might not always agree with you. And although the Republican operatives in Washington might not be interested in hearing what we have to say, I think Republican and independent voters outside of Washington are. That’s the once-in-a-generation opportunity we have in this election.
For the first time in a long time, we have the chance to build a new majority of not just Democrats, but Independents and Republicans who’ve lost faith in their Washington leaders but want to believe again – who desperately want something new…
n the end, the argument we are having between the candidates in the last seven days is not just about the meaning of change. It’s about the meaning of hope. Some of my opponents appear scornful of the word; they think it speaks of naivete, passivity, and wishful thinking.
But that’s not what hope is. Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task before us or the roadblocks that stand in our path. Yes, the lobbyists will fight us. Yes, the Republican attack dogs will go after us in the general election. Yes, the problems of poverty and climate change and failing schools will resist easy repair. I know – I’ve been on the streets, I’ve been in the courts. I’ve watched legislation die because the powerful held sway and good intentions weren’t fortified by political will, and I’ve watched a nation get mislead into war because no one had the judgment or the courage to ask the hard questions before we sent our troops to fight.
But I also know this. I know that hope has been the guiding force behind the most improbable changes this country has ever made. In the face of tyranny, it’s what led a band of colonists to rise up against an Empire. In the face of slavery, it’s what fueled the resistance of the slave and the abolitionist, and what allowed a President to chart a treacherous course to ensure that the nation would not continue half slave and half free. In the face of war and Depression, it’s what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. In the face of oppression, it’s what led young men and women to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through the streets of Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause. That’s the power of hope – to imagine, and then work for, what had seemed impossible before.
That’s the change we seek. And that’s the change you can stand for in seven days.
It’s a longer excerpt because Obama’s idea is more complex, more subtle. It is to Edwards’s credit that he is able to take complex ideas and boil them down into a simple formula – and it is how he won so many court cases. Obama prefers to make his audience rise to the rhetoric, to make them work to understand him. And it has been a surprisingly effective formula so far.