11/28/2011 08:58 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2012

The American Idea and 2012

I have never begun a column with more misgivings.

Foreign and domestic, President Obama has accomplished far more than his critics allow. In some ways -- the way he took out Osama bin Laden, for instance -- he's shown a fine, if cerebral, executive ability.

But I can't avoid a shudder when I look over the coming election. The premises of the president's campaign -- "Can you really want to put guys who got us into this mess back in power?" and "It could have been worse" -- are somewhat less than inspiring.

About the only thing those of us not of the right wing have to look forward to, aside from one of the dirtiest low-road campaigns in memory, is that the right wing seems determined to take its ball and go home if it can't be quarterback.

Instead of their behaving like grownups, in fact, the country has been treated to the spectacle of the Republican base acting like Scarlett O'Hara and desperately throwing itself into the arms of every suitor who isn't Mitt Romney.

The depths of said desperation? As things stand, most in the GOP would rather nominate thrice-divorced Newt Gingrich, who was fined $300,000 for lying to Congress and resigned after leading his party to its worst defeat in 64 years, than Mitt Romney, a successful if uninspiring governor most famous for strapping his dog to the roof of his car and driving to Canada.

Given choices like that, few would begrudge Republicans for abandoning their usual enthusiasm for going door to door with lawn signs and manning phone banks, and sitting this one out. I myself am all for it.

The problem? The same goes for the Democratic base, which elected Barack Obama as if he were FDR and promptly contracted a horrible case of buyer's remorse.

And since it's the base that mans the phone banks and the entire electoral process is in the hands of registered independents, those phone banks and neighborhood workers are going to be how President Obama gets re-elected, absent a third-party run by, say, Ron Paul.

And getting the base willing to go to work won't be easy. The country, after all, needs an FDR to put things on track, and I doubt even the West Wing staff would claim that mantle fits this president.

It's probably true, of course, that people voted for the president because of unrealistic hopes, and that 30 years of daily beatings by Republicans helped create them. The problem was we wanted to elect somebody who would give us some revenge -- who'd stand up to what we've come to consider Republican politics and break some bones in the process.

But, we got a reasonable man inclined to meet his opponent in the middle and get on to what's next, instead of giving us five bloody rounds and a knockout.

But you'd like to think that doesn't apply to the adults inside the party, which brings us to my old and dear friends J and M. They probably wouldn't care if I used their names, but I'm choosing not to. I'll just say that J is a long-time and substantial contributor to the Democratic Party, and M is a bundler.

About a month ago J forwarded an email he'd sent to Andrew Tobias, the Democratic Party treasurer, that started this way:

"I had reached a point last few days where I thought it was time to send you the money for the good guys, but Andy I think I just can't do that.

I don't mind that I will never get my pizza and diet coke in the WH kitchen for more than a million of Democratic donations over the last 35 years; I was just thinking that he, Our President, knows better and does so little of great moral importance. I have come to think that may make him a worse man at heart and more culpable than Bush who was a foolish, stupid and lesser man in all ways. President Obama has begun to remind me of some essentially decent Men who brought us Vietnam."

Then J set down a long list of what amounted to the sins of omission few Democrats of any stripe could quibble with, from taking troops out of Iraq only to put them in Kuwait, to allowing what caused the '08 crash to live on and prosper, and called President Obama "a weak leader when we needed a Powerful one, a Man without the courage to do those things that so clearly needed doing for our Nation, for our People and for the Peoples of the World."

This was intriguing, coming from a man habituated to the upper realms, so I sent it to my friend M., an heiress who grew up in the world of money and power. Her response: "I agree with him."

Will sentiments like that doom the Obama candidacy? No. The Democratic PACs and Super PACs created by the Citizens United ruling dwarf anything my two friends could possibly contribute. We're talking about a billion-dollar campaign, after all.

And with the amount of money about to flood the airwaves with relentlessly negative ads -- all sludge, all the time -- any advice from the intelligent, well-meaning sorts who used to influence Democratic politics would be lost in the day-to-day rush to respond to the latest round of Republican assertions anyway.

No. The damage isn't to the election. It's to the American Idea. The biggest complaint at all points of the political spectrum is that government has lost touch with the American People and only responds to its contributors. And when people like my friends begin to feel that way -- and I'm assuming there's nothing special about their opinions, however remarkable they are otherwise -- then the break between the American People and the government of by and for the people is almost complete.

The result next year is likely to be a low-turnout, base-driven election that will set the stage for some of the most fateful decisions about this country's future ever made in the Oval Office. And that's worth thinking about.

Visit my website at