Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

By Dana Milbank
Monday, January 7, 2008

NASHUA, N.H., Jan. 6

If Hillary Clinton borrowed any more from Barack Obama's campaign theme of "change" at her rally here, state troopers guarding the entrances would have been compelled to charge her with grand larceny.

"This election," she told 3,000 cheering supporters Sunday, "is about how we bring about change."

She went on to promise to "produce the changes that we desperately yearn for," asserted that she's "been making positive changes in people's lives," reminded the audience that she was busy "creating change in those years in the White House" and offered again to furnish "the change that is necessary."

Those things Obama has done? "That's not change," Clinton said, in a call-and-response chant with the audience. By contrast, Clinton said of her own record: " That is change."

It certainly is: 16 invocations of "change" in the first 10 minutes.

In the presidential race, Clinton has been the most flagrant shoplifter of others' campaign rhetoric. Last week, she cribbed verbatim three of Obama's slogans in a single phrase: "We are fired up and we are ready to go because we know America is ready for change."

But Clinton is hardly the only thief in a primary battle that is overrun with me-tooism. Last week's Iowa caucuses exacerbated the pilfering, as candidates purloined themes that seemed to have worked for their rivals. Obama has stolen Republican John McCain's "straight talk" theme and has made off with numerous phrases belonging to fellow Democrat John Edwards. And Republican Mitt Romney has been openly borrowing the "change" theme from Obama -- or is it from Clinton?

With so much word theft occurring on the campaign trail, the most famous confirmed plagiarist in the race, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Neil Kinnock), couldn't find an opening and had to drop out after his loss in Iowa last week.

Apparently, the theme thievery works. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a Clinton backer, recalled to The Washington Post's Paul Kane how George W. Bush in 2000 stole the mantle of change from McCain. "We all laughed when we saw 'Reformer With Results,' " Menendez said. "We said, 'You gotta be kidding me.' But it worked."

On Saturday, the Boston Globe caught Obama red-handed after the new Democratic front-runner stole words from Edwards. Obama announced that "we shouldn't just be respecting wealth in this country -- we should be respecting work," suspiciously similar to Edwards's line in 2004: "we're going to reward work, not just wealth." Obama also joked about commercials about sexual-performance drugs that "have all these people running around in the fields" -- not unlike Edwards's 2004 joke about the same drugs: "Take it, and the next day you and your spouse will be skipping through the fields."

In his campaign announcement speech, Obama said: "I've been there [Washington] long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change." Four years earlier, Edwards, in his announcement speech, said: "I've spent enough time in Washington to know how much we need to change Washington." Coincidence? Consider that Edwards's 2004 adviser David Axelrod is Obama's 2008 adviser.

Obama has also been caught with his hand in the Clinton cookie jar. The Chicago Tribune pointed out that Obama's stock line from Martin Luther King Jr. about "the fierce urgency of now" was uttered by Clinton on Nov. 1, 10 days before Obama used it in a celebrated speech in Iowa.

But, measured by number of items stolen, Clinton seems to be more perpetrator than victim. On May 2, Obama told the California Democratic convention: "It's time to turn the page." Eleven days later, Clinton declared that "people are anxious to turn the page." Also on May 2, Obama noted that he "turned down the corporate job offers" after law school; 10 days later, Bill Clinton said in a video, "she turned down all the lucrative job offers." In February 2007, Obama told voters in Iowa that they should "kick the tires and be clear that I have a grasp of the issues," while Clinton said in September, "you got to kick my tires and see whether or not I'll collapse."

After Clinton launched a radio ad in Iowa last week declaring that she is the candidate representing "hope" -- Obama's signature theme -- Time magazine's Mark Halperin posted the headline "She's a Hopemonger, Too," over an image of Clinton's head superimposed on the cover of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope."

Speaking of audacity, Clinton, in an appearance in Nashua Sunday that lasted nearly two hours, spoke about how she "deeply believes in the American Dream" and wants "to make sure we are not the first generation of Americans to leave our country worse off than when we found it for our children."

Contrast that to Obama's November speech, "Reclaiming the American Dream," in which he argued that we "have the responsibility to make sure that our children can reach a little further and rise a little higher than we did." While Obama observed that "Americans share a faith in simple dreams," Clinton urged that "our country keeps faith with their dreams."

Of course, it may just be coincidence that Clinton singled out "all of the young people" in the hall after Obama had done just that, or that Clinton spoke of "change you can count on" after Obama made a slogan of "change we can believe in."

Others seem to be more than coincidence. Here's Clinton on Sunday: "I want to find Republicans and independents, I want to find people across our country who share my commitment . . . to the reality of change." And here's Obama last week: "You can come together as Democrats and Republicans and independents and stand up and say that . . . we are one people, and that our time for change has come."

Of course, it isn't all an echo of Obama. Clinton spoke of Mario Cuomo, the "wonderful former governor of New York [who] used to say that in politics, you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose."

Obama never used that line. Bill Clinton did -- in 1993.

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