In a week that began as arguably one of the worst of the Obama presidency, Thursday's significantly-improved GOP debate in Iowa forces politicos of all allegiances to ask what the general election in 2012 is really going to look like.
In Ames, Iowa, we saw a FOX news team grilling the Republican primary contenders with a zeal last seen unleashed at Bret Baier's one-on-one with President Obama during the pique of White House sanctions of the network. The at-times caustic tone was an unequivocal sign that internally conservatives are taking seriously the task of green-lighting a unifying, winning candidate from their party's ideological and leadership disarray. Several avenues forward were presented: the pro-business bros of Romney, Huntsman and Cain; the anti-government stalwart Paul; the culture warriors Bachmann and Santorum; the haunting presence of Palin and Perry's star power; and (apparently) FOX ombudsman Newt.
The hot question is, of course: Which of these can beat Obama? However, the hotter question should be: Who is Obama in 2012?
If we roll back our brain databases all the way to Monday (watch out for those floating tweets in your frontal cortex!), you might recall that the President's approval rating had dipped to its lowest yet, liberals were flipping out over Drew Westen's crestfallen New York Times oped and arguing that Hillary Clinton would have made a better president in retrospect.
Meanwhile, Team Obama's campaign staff continues to operate as though they are mobilizing the same massive base of rabid supporters for a passionate fight next year, e-mailing fundraising requests as though the rhetoric of three years ago will still resonate enough to spark support for a policy platform that no one can adequately articulate. They don't seem to recognize that they have become a niche group of Daily Kos enthusiasts, and that most Americans now consider 'hope' to be a pejorative term.
It is hard to declare a Republican front-runner when the incumbent opponent remains a mystery. To most people watching at home, they all look like chameleons.
I had the distinct pleasure of leaving Washington D.C. in June after almost two years in the thick of the "enthusiasm gap" for Democrats, the rise of the Tea Party, partisan gridlock and the general disintegration of any remaining goodwill that inspired anyone in 2008. Instead of cajoling understandably disaffected voters, I've opted to teach political journalism at Roosevelt University in Chicago this fall, but I got to spend my summer vacation with what Beltway-types like to call "regular Americans."
Talking with friends, family, neighbors and new acquaintances, I am deeply saddened to see the poignant disappointment that has taken over everybody. The reasons vary across the board, from progressives who can't take President Obama seriously because he won't stand up for gay couples to conservatives who understand the crippling nature of our nation's debt troubles but don't want Tea Party freshman subverting the right with their reckless agenda. Most still plan to vote, but they will do so plugging their noses. Gone is the surge of patriotism, quashed is the drive to believe that this nation can reclaim its greatness.
Consequently on both sides of the aisle, strategists would be wise to remember something that no one is talking about right now.
There was a tremendous demand for what Obama was selling.
His positive message went viral like wildfire. His call for bipartisanship was applauded vociferously. His youth, energy, diversity, and intellect led people to believe that the colliding dynasties of Clintons and Bushes were a part of history and we could move forward with the 21st century.
We didn't get any of that, and everybody knows it's everyone's fault.
So throw out talking points about jobs on debate night. Ask Michelle Bachmann if she'll be submissive to her husband and spark a week-long controversy about misogyny among the pundits. Lambast Huntsman for being in the wrong party because he's a moderate. Tout the pledges they've signed to protect marriage or lower the deficit. Place all the value in the world on what a few thousand hand-picked Iowans vote in a straw poll this weekend. Open the floodgates of unmitigated negative ads American Crossroads and Priorities USA can fund and spew at us thanks to Citizens United.
The thing is, Americans don't believe anything anyone is saying right now.
The key takeaway from the debate is that a lot of journalists and candidates need to ask themselves whether these nights of political theater they stage will ever truly reflect what it will take to win not just the votes, but the hearts and commitments of Americans to move our country forward.