Change You Can Lift

It’s the first full week of the general election, and John McCain is already getting shredded for plagiarism. Not copying, exactly, but framing his candidacy as a reaction to Barack Obama’s.

It started Tuesday night, when McCain chose to orient his speech around the refrain, “That’s not change we can believe in.” As one commentator put it , that’s just taking Obama’s slogan and saying no. Today, William Kristol chides McCain : “Even hardhearted Republicans think a general election message should be a bit more positive than that.”

Later last week, National Journal ’s Hotline pointed out that McCain’s new imagery mimics Obama’s logo . And McCain’s new slogan—”A Leader We Can Believe In”—is a direct response to Obama’s.

Despite the criticism, McCain seems prepared to run with the phrase. The camp has introduced a new blog called The McCain Report , subtitling it “A Blog We Can Believe In.” Today, Obama kicks off his two-week economy tour with the sales pitch, “Change that Works for You.” The McCain campaign sent out a response, concluding that “Barack Obama doesn’t understand the American economy and that’s change we just can’t afford.”

By co-opting Obama’s language, McCain is essentially ceding the “change” label. Things will change under Obama, he’s saying, just not for the better. In what everyone seems to agree is a “change election,” that seems like a risky idea. Hillary Clinton stumbled when she tried to turn Obama’s slogans on him—remember her ” change we can Xerox ” line, or her chanting of “Yes, we will.” These moments felt more derivative than clever and tacitly acknowledged that Obama’s message had connected. Similarly, McCain is agreeing to begin the competition on Obama’s turf. Plus, however mawkish Obama’s image can sometimes be, attacks on “change” and “hope” just sound bitter. No moment has failed quite like Clinton’s sarcastic riff that under Obama “the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect.” McCain should take note.