The Coalition of Transformation vs. the Coalition of Restoration

How the 2012 election heralds an historical reconfiguration of American politics

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This long march of a presidential election, after all its expense and duration, proved far more memorable for what it said about the country than what it revealed about the two men vying to lead it.

Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney ran a particularly inspiring campaign. Each delivered a dud of a convention speech. (Quick: Can you remember a single thing either one said?)

Except for one golden night in Denver, Romney was gaffe-prone, distant, and, as it turned out, possessed of insular, elitist views that radiated contempt for just about anyone who didn't vote for him. Obama offered a forthright defense of activist government in principle; yet, in practice, he presented an agenda with few, and mostly modest, specifics.

In each case, the candidate's own performance lagged behind the effort that sprouted around him. Romney's actual campaign apparatus sputtered (failing to match both Obama's early ad assault and the closing kick of his turnout operation). But the independent-expenditure campaign that coalesced on his behalf was breathtaking in its scale (if not its results). Obama benefited from a digital-age marvel of a campaign that hit its marks with stunning efficiency -- in the negative-ad barrage that stamped Romney's image as an indifferent plutocrat and in the precisely targeted voter-mobilization system that overwhelmed the GOP efforts. Campaign strategists will profitably study that juggernaut for years.

And yet, what historians are likely to most remember about this campaign is what it revealed about the evolving nature of the country itself and how the parties are positioning themselves against those dynamics. Above all, this was a year when it became clear that, in a time of hurtling change, the two parties now represent a Coalition of Transformation and a Coalition of Restoration.

In terms of shaping the Democrats' long-term trajectory, by far the most important decisions Obama made this year were to dive into the powerful cultural and demographic currents transforming the American landscape. Previously, many party leaders have qualified (or entirely withheld) their support from causes such as gay marriage or legalizing undocumented immigrants, for fear of alienating culturally conservative whites. Obama this year embraced both without qualification; then, for good measure, he accepted a collision with the GOP and the Catholic Church (over the availability of free contraception under health-care reform) that crystallized contrasting attitudes about the role of women. Obama, beginning an overdue rebalancing in federal spending, even shifted resources from seniors to the much more racially diverse working-age population by funding health coverage for the uninsured partly through savings in Medicare.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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