WASHINGTON - Two years ago, Barack Obama united American politics as no one had done in decades. Next week -- once the vote is in -- American politics will lay broken in at least five uneasy pieces.
The blame game for Democratic losses already has begun and the explanations include an intractable Great Recession, a legacy of rising public debt, Republican cynicism and the mistakes of the president.
But even before glancing back, it's worth looking ahead, because the landscape is clear. The simple, personal narrative of presidential hope, which won Obama the first semi-landslide in years and clear majorities in Congress, will be replaced by a complex, fragmented, parliamentary-style mess, with multiple, gridlock-inducing power centers -- of which the White House is only (barely) one.
Here is the list, with their leaders, outlook and centers of operation:
- ROVIANS: The new conventional wisdom is that there is no GOP Establishment any more. As usual, the CW is wrong. Of course there is a Republican Establishment -- it's Karl Rove. An innovator technically, Rove is the past master of directing populist resentment against government and away from corporate business. Trained originally in the cut and thrust of direct mail (the precursor of attack tweets), and possessing a bulging list of high-roller contacts, he has been the de facto national manager of the GOP's 2010 campaign. Rove is at one with mainstream-conservative Hill leaders, who backed President George W. Bush's TARP bailout (and, in the process, spawned the Tea Party). The Establishment's goal now is to humor the Tea Party, but not at the expense of corporate America or at the risk of seeming too eager to dismantle Social Security. Rove won't sign on to a 2012 campaign early, but his history and his contacts suggest that he could go with former Gov. Mitt Romney, and may even have a ticket in mind: Romney and Mississippi Gov. (and Rove protégé) Haley Barbour. Headquarters: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with main auxiliary clubhouses in Dallas and Houston.
- PALIN-PAULS AKA The Tea Party: While their final numbers in Congress are not known, this faction will be large enough, and infamous enough to be a force in Congress and in the 2012 campaign. Former Gov. Sarah Palin will almost certainly run, but, in the meantime, she will tweet herself into the role of goad and spokesperson for the rejectionist front of the GOP on the Hill. The other key players could well be the Pauls, father and son. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is the proto Tea Partier, and already has indicated that he will run for president again, whatever Palin and company do. His son, Dr. Rand Paul, looks likely to be in the U.S. Senate and will either be a key ally of his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell, or McConnell's worst nightmare. The Palin-Pauls' goals include dismantling the new health-care law, cutting spending and privatizing the Social Security system. Other potential presidentials include former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former establishment dude Newt Gingrich. Headquarters: Wasilla, Alaska, Dick Armey's office and a Paul Family reunion.
- BLOOMBERGERS: No one who has met New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has any doubt that he would like to be president, or that he has any doubt that he'd be terrific at it. After all, he's worth at least $20 billion, he invented a form of communication and he has managed an ungovernable city reasonably well. He toyed with running for president as an independent in 2008, and has a core of people around him, led by Kevin Sheekey and Howard Wolfson, who are among the savviest national political players around. This time, he would run in the manner of the landed gentry of two centuries ago: as an American patrician above it all, thanks to his vast wealth, with no partisan allegiance, eager to strike a national, centrist consensus on the debt, on the environment and foreign affairs. He'd draw on what's left of moderate Republicanism (admittedly not much). But, more important, he'd draw on what's left of Clintonism, which is quite considerable. Pro-business Democrats, which Bill Clinton was, are about to become an endangered species. Blue Dog Democrats -- which Clinton was, sort of -- are about to become extinct. That would give Bloomberg a route into Democratic votes. Not coincidentally, Wolfson was Hillary Clinton's (excellent) 2008 spokesman. There has been plenty of parlor talk about whether Hillary Clinton might challenge Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2012, or wind up as his running mate. But that misses the point. She won't challenge the president and won't be on the ticket. But Bloomberg, if he runs, would get many of her supporters, financial and otherwise. Headquarters: Upper East Side Manhattan.
- UNION-KRUGMANITES: Next week's results will decimate conservative Democrats, who won marginal districts in 2006 and 2008 in red or purple districts and states. As a result, the Left, or what's left of the Left, will be in charge of shrunken Democratic ranks in Congress. They still like the president, for the most part, but think he was ill served, or even duped, by former Clintonites such as Larry Summers. Disillusioned by the president, operating in a national conversation in many ways still dominated by conservatives, what's left of the Left has few true, visible operational heroes at the moment. One of them is columnist Paul Krugman -- not radical, except that in today's context a true believer in the Democratic tradition of the New Deal and John Maynard Keynes seems like one. While Krugman laments the lack of more government stimulus, the labor movement, especially the public-employee unions, are lining up within the party to resist what is sure to be a round of profound spending cuts. It was the public-employee unions who benefitted most directly from President Obama's stimulus package -- and it is they who are now most clearly in Republican gun sights. How will President Obama deal with them? That is a key question, if not THE key question, inside the Hill party in 2012. Headquarters: AFSCME and the NEA in Washington.
- THE WHITE HOUSE: For reasons of calendar and cause, the Obama operational inner circle is about to change. Most of the original set of economic advisors is gone. David Axelrod will go back to Chicago and go back to what he is best at, designing a campaign theme. The president is going to need a new chief of staff, and will probably want to get one from the Hill again, only this time from the Senate. But more than acquiring new staff, the president needs to do something he has resisted. He has to become a Washington inside player and pretend to like it. Doing so will inevitably damage his "brand" (remember that "O" and that rising sun?), but so be it. The fact is, the simpler time that the symbol represented is over.