Together We Stand, Divided We Fall

In a pair of columns for Bloomberg I've argued, first, that the election shouldn't have been as close a call for Obama as it's turning out to be and, second, that despite his errors of governing and campaigning Obama's still a better bet than Romney. Increasingly, though, I feel that the most important thing about this election, whoever wins, is that the country is going to lose. Ron Brownstein puts it well in this article for National Journal:

For the third time in the past four presidential elections, these divergent [Democratic and Republican] coalitions might prove almost identical in size. That means the outcome will likely alienate almost exactly half of us. (Emotions will spike further if the Electoral College winner loses the popular vote.) Theodore Roosevelt once said that as Americans, "our common interests are as broad as the continent." Yet Election Day may highlight more vividly our mountainous, and increasingly impenetrable, differences. The contrast between [Obama in] Cleveland and [Romney in] Canton last week reminds us how far the winner will need to stretch after this grueling campaign to govern as anything more than the president of half of America.

Obama was so exciting in 2008 because he not only promised to transcend this divide, but actually seemed capable of doing it. He's since given up, and Romney isn't even saying he'll try. It's a disturbing trajectory.

One point of clarification. In the columns I just mentioned, I criticize Obama's failure to seize the center ground of U.S. politics. This was partly a choice, in my view -- reflecting the fact that (unlike Bill Clinton) he's a progressive and not a centrist by instinct. But it was partly also a reaction to the determination of the GOP in Congress to defeat his every initiative. Ezra Klein says the Republicans' give-no-quarter strategy worked; similarly, E.J. Dionne says Democrats were more willing to compromise than the GOP. I agree with both points: When I criticize Obama, it's not because I think the GOP is blameless, but rather for the reverse: Obama failed to exploit the opportunity that the Republicans' intransigence afforded him.

Yes, his opponents were reckless and unreasonable. Yes, they were moving abruptly to the right. Tactically speaking, that was Obama's chance. But to make the most of it, he had to plant his flag in the center the GOP was vacating.

Instead, after Scott Brown, even after the midterms, he let Democrats in Congress get on with it and tacked left -- repeatedly casting his disagreement with the Republicans as a contest between his own (not especially popular) progressive vision and their militantly conservative vision, rather than between the commonsense pragmatism the country longs for and the other side's unreasoning extremism. That was the contrast he could and should have underscored. When I say he blew it, that's what I mean.