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Column: Our Love-Hate Relationship With Change

Bill Clinton became U.S. president on a platform of “change.” Not change in any particular way — just change in the abstract.

Like characters in a Chekhov play, Americans found daily life unbearable in some usually unspecified way and dreamed of escape. But they didn’t have the energy to achieve escape velocity. Then along came this fast-talking charmer, and suddenly we’ve left Chekhov behind and are in The Music Man.

Modifying Clinton’s formula only slightly, Barack Obama’s campaign mantra in 2008 was “change you can believe in.” This year, a major part of Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s challenge to President Obama was throwing this formula back in his face. Where was the change Obama had talked about?

This strategy failed, but not because the voters decided that, on reflection, maybe they didn’t want change. It was because Romney is unconvincing in the role of change agent. He has it pretty good. Why would he want things to change?

Americans certainly have change in our blood. Our semiofficial national myth — celebrated last week, on Thanksgiving — is of ancestors who uprooted themselves and crossed the ocean to start a new life. Americans with this basic story in their past are still a majority of the citizenry, though just barely.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to take seriously any poll showing that we all share a desire for change. Imagine that your phone rings and it’s some guy from the Gallup Organization or the Pew Research Center wanting to know whether you favor everything being fresh and new, or everything staying exactly the way it is. Are you really going to admit that you’re a stick-in-the-mud who is more or less content with things the way they are?

Change in the abstract is now a fundamental American value, like liberty or fried chicken. Everyone is for it, in the abstract. Change in particular is a different story. Apart from a totally nonspecific call for major change, Obama beat Romney in part by accusing him of wanting to change something specific: Medicare.

Romney spent most of his energy on this issue, trying with increasing desperation to convince people that he came to rescue Medicare, not to change it. He said, first, that his proposed changes (basically, turning Medicare into a voucher system) would reduce the risk of major change by making the Medicare trust fund fiscally sound. Second, he said his proposed changes weren’t really his: They were the brainstorm of his running mate, Paul Ryan, and he (Romney), not Ryan, would be in charge. And third, he said that anyone older than 55 would be allowed to opt out of his proposed reforms, no matter how wonderful they might be.

The big problem with “change” as a political slogan is that most people don’t really want change. They just say (and possibly even believe) that they do. In fighting for the Affordable Care Act, the administration emphasized that you could keep your current doctors. (The failure to convince people that this would be true is one of the big reasons that “Hillarycare,” the Clinton administration’s health-care-reform effort, went down.) Premature nostalgia for the present is a big factor in opposition to immigration reform.

All this isn’t just a problem of what Kevin Phillips once devastatingly labeled “reactionary liberalism”: a tendency among liberals to circle the wagons around any government program once it has been established. Republicans do it, too: exaggerating the perils of some program such as Social Security, then proposing a solution (almost always a tax cut for wealthy people) that won’t solve the problem and will make our bigger fiscal problem worse.

But it’s not the quarreling politicians in Washington who stand in the way of change. It’s the citizenry ourselves. The change we want is a suspension of the laws of mathematics. We debate tax increases for the rich to finance middle-class entitlement programs, versus tax cuts for the rich and “reform” of entitlement programs. In the end, we will have to raise taxes on everybody and cut entitlements as well. And that, unfortunately, is change you really can believe in.

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.