Voters' desire to see political change has become the undisputed theme of the 2008 US presidential election scheduled for November following a strong surge of support for contender for Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama that has 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 US politics — most of all, the popular rejection of the right-wing agenda of war and corporate power personified by President 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, as much by Hillary Clinton — his main opponent in the primaries to decide the Democratic candidate — as by 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.
In between the two contests, 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 US business is in disarray. Mike Huckabee, a right-wing zealot and favourite 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 an 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 US boosted the campaign of an African American (Obama) for the presidency of a country built on slavery.
But now that talk of political change has become the election centerpiece, 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 in line with the mainstream Democratic leadership.
If, like the November 2006 congressional elections, Obama's surge is another sign of the desire for an alternative to conservative domination in US politics, will an Obama presidency deliver anything like a real alternative?
Three months ago, Obama was well behind Clinton, whose campaign was based on portraying herself as the "inevitable" winner of the Democratic nomination. 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" — when most states hold their primary elections — on February 5.
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 Bush 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 favourite to win the Iowa caucuses. He came 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".
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.
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 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.
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."
However, given the policies that Obama and the other Democrats actually stand for, hopes for a change of direction will be disappointed.
Obama's rhetorical appeals disguise more moderate political positions — positions which are, in fact, closer to the Republican agenda than either he, his fellow Democrats or the media 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 authorising 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, 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 all their verbal skirmishing, the health care proposals, for example, of all three have something 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 US elections.
Obama and Clinton have broken all fundraising records for a competitive race, taking in more than US$100 million each in donations. 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". 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.
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 remain in the business-friendly mould adopted by the Bill Clinton presidency.
This is why the Republicans — even though they are all but certain to be crushed in the November poll — have still been able to set the terms of the political debate on key questions, such as abortion and gay-rights.
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.
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.
[Abridged from the January 11 edition of US Socialist Worker, <http://socialistworker.org>.]