Hopenchange II: This time, it's all about fear

Nothing could more garishly illustrate a bedrock truth about the campaign that lies before us: It will bear about as much resemblance to 2008 as Romney does to Nicki Minaj. In the campaign prior, any mention of Wright caused a collective coronary in Chicago; this time, it provokes high-fives. In the campaign prior, Team Obama boldly bid to expand the map; this time, it is playing defense. In the campaign prior, the candidate himself sought support from the widest possible universe of voters; this time, instead of trying to broaden his coalition, he is laboring to deepen it. Indeed, 2012 is shaping up to be an election that looks more like 2004 than 2008: a race propelled by the mobilization of party fundamentalists rather than the courtship of the center.

If Obama wins a second term this way, the implications for governing could prove salutary—or god-awful. The president, energized by the prospect of a debate about “big things,” purports to take the optimistic view. “I think the general election will be as sharp a contrast between the two parties as we’ve seen in a generation,” Obama told Rolling Stone. “My hope is that if the American people send a message to [the GOP] … there’s going to be some self-reflection going on—that it might break the fever.” And, hey, who knows, crazier things have happened. Likelier, though, is that an incessantly negative, base-driven election will yield an uglier outcome. More polarization. More acrimony. More gridlock. (Yippee!)

What’s clear is that an Obama victory could have profound political implications for the future of the Democratic Party. When 44 arrived in office, some forecast that he might usher in a New New Deal. (Nope.) But if he gains reelection by consolidating his party’s position with the electorate’s ascendant demographic forces, Obama may succeed in creating a viable post–New Deal coalition on which Democrats can build for years to come. “Ronald Reagan turned a whole bunch of people who are now seniors into Republicans,” says Messina. “What is happening now is that young people, women, and Latinos are becoming Democrats. That’s the coalition Obama brought; demographics brought it, too. And for the next 30 years, it is going to be a real challenge for Republicans.”

Of course, if Obama loses, all such grand talk will be consigned to the ash heap of history—and hubris. And there are plenty of Democrats more jittery about that possibility than they were just a month ago. To their eyes, the president’s team seems off-kilter, his campaign off-brand, his rival finding his stride. “The natural gravity of this race is such that Romney will be close or a little bit ahead very soon, and it’s going to be like that through the convention,” says a Democratic strategist. “Romney doesn’t have idiots working for him; they’re going to run a safe, smart, tactical campaign.” And they have proven adept at one thing: “They kill well,” admits a senior White House official. “And that’s not unimportant.”