This week for the first time in the presidential race, a poll gave Mitt Romney the edge over President Obama (only a tiny one, within the margin of error). One foresees that a simple message may prevail over a complex one. The simple message, which Romney endlessly repeats, is this: The president is a nice guy, but he's in over his head, and his wild spending has bankrupted the country. The complex message, which comes from Obama in mixed, varied, and confusing in ways, is this: We must revamp America in order to meet the future.
Because Romney has blame, impatience, and angry frustration on his side, he may succeed in his uphill climb. Already most of what the pundits told us -- that Romney had been damaged in the combative primary race, that the conservative base is opposed to him, that the religious right is suspicious of him -- has proved invalid. Republicans are rallying en masse behind the simple message, while seething underneath is an irrational hostility to Obama that no sensible person can quite fathom.
Yet it's the president who knows the magic word that will end all our woes: Evolve. He picked "Forward" as a simpler synonym, but the net effect is the same. The old America that was such a familiar comfort zone isn't coming back, no matter how warmly the Republicans try to conjure it. Our future will not be the repetition of our past, because certain hard facts are set in place:
- Manufacturing jobs aren't coming back.
- Workers with only high school diplomas are at a permanent disadvantage that grows larger every decade.
- Older blue-collar workers are forming a new class of the permanently unemployed.
- Safety nets in the form of pensions and benefits have drastically eroded.
- Fossil fuels are more in demand than ever from places like India and China.
- Economic inequality is wider than ever before in our history.
- The middle class has stagnated in income potential and burdensome debt.
- Society is getting older, putting pressure on entitlements as never before.
It's a tragic irony that the Republican Party has become the domain of white blue-collar workers, because they are the worse off and the ones who need Obama's vision the most. All governing classes come from the elite (after all, both candidates have Harvard degrees, just as all the leading contenders in 2004 went to Yale). The difference is that the Democratic vision is fostered by an elite that wants to retool our whole society for the benefit of the greatest number. The Republican Party wants to benefit well-off white males.
Somehow, after 40 years of reactionary conditioning, the working class has been persuaded to support rich white males while ignoring their own best interests. Abortion and gay marriage are typical red herrings, as are foreign wars and stoking mass fear about terrorism. For all that, America must evolve on all fronts. Obama realizes this quite clearly; hence his programs for alternative energy, a cleaner environment, infrastructure repairs, universal health care, and on and on. Nothing offered by Romney is remotely commensurate. One prays that in his heart he is the moderate, sensible person that the extreme right hates and fears.
But the larger point is that "evolve" is too complex a message to cut through Tea Party hostility and unreason, which Romney must cash in on. For decades the elite mentality inside both parties has kept reactionary forces from doing their worst. We still have abortion, no prayer in the schools, increasing acceptance of gay marriage, etc. But this kind of passive resistance has come to an end. Angry populism has battered down the doors of Congress. Endemic problems have finally come home to roost. Without a doubt President Obama has the clearest vision for our future and the one that would benefit the very kind of voter who riles against health care, alternative energy, a sane immigration policy, and gay marriage. It would be a tragedy if these voters get what they want instead, which is another decade of decline and misery if reactionary politicians have their way.