The Republican game plan for 2012 was to make this a "referendum election" not one asking voters to make a "choice" between the parties. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men?
Despite Republican's best efforts, we've now got ourselves an election in which the most important question facing voters on November 6 is a choice between two starkly different worldviews - a turn of events Republicans have no one to blame but themselves.
Distilled to its essence, the strategy Republicans originally intended to employ to retake both the White House and Congress was divided into three easy steps.
The first was to paint President Obama and the "Obama economy" in the darkest possible hues. This is what Mitt Romney tried to do in his acceptance speech when he said Obama "has crushed the middle class" while family incomes have fallen by $4,000 as "health insurance premiums are higher, food prices are higher, utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices have doubled." At the same time, says Romney, nearly one out of six Americans now lives in poverty and Obama's "policies have not helped create jobs, they have depressed them."
Following this litany of gloom and doom, the second part of the Republican strategy consisted of portraying themselves as the heroic inheritors of the American Dream, bravely making use of the God-given freedoms this great country of ours had granted them in order to raise themselves and their families up by their own exertions -- without the least assistance from that freedom-suffocating government to which those moochers on the Democratic side seemed as attached as addicts to a drug.
"These are American success stories," said Romney, summarizing the message of the three days of speeches which preceded his own at the Republican National Convention last month. "And yet the centerpiece of the President's entire re-election campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success, we don't apologize for it," said Romney.
And finally, Republicans hoped voters who may still be looking for a job in Year Four of the Great Recession, or worrying about the one they already have, will decide to switch horses in mid-stream and vote Republican based on nostalgia and stirring personal narratives alone without bothering to read the fine print or inquiring too particularly into the implications of the policies and programs they may be buying with their vote.
But a funny thing happened to the GOP on its way to the White House. The party's true right wing nature got the better of it and upset all its earlier plans to make this election a "referendum" on the three-year job performance of Barack Obama, and nothing else.
In retrospect, it was never credible to think the Republican Party would be satisfied with a campaign limited to the conditions as they exist in 2012 alone. Not a party as ideological as this one, nor as committed to a decades-old project to roll back the progressive gains of the last century and re-create an American nation-state as it looked during the Gilded Age -- the last time America flirted with ideas about Social Darwinism, survival-of-the-fittest and laissez faire. To run a campaign limited to contemporary issues would constitute "governing." And Republicans were always after much bigger game than that.
And so, no matter how cleverly or completely they tried to disguise their revolutionary agenda behind those inspiring and heart-warming stories Republicans with their fat trust funds were telling us in Tampa about their ancestors arriving penniless on these shores before building legacies of "success," there was always something about the whole sorry effort that seemed utterly fake.
Maybe it was the giant "We Built It!" banner tacked behind the speaker's podium -- a slogan that was itself a fraud since it was built around a reconfigured statement of President Obama's torn horribly out of context.
Or maybe it was the weirdness of so many speakers devoting so much time retelling ghost stories about long dead relatives with so little attention spent on the specific plans Republicans might have for America today.
But if Republicans were disappointed their convention did not produce a bigger bounce in the polls, perhaps the reason lies in the fact Americans could sense another shoe was about to drop among all those tall tales Republicans were telling of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
And whatever vague apprehensions voters might have felt after experiencing the barrenness of the Republican blueprint for the future, those fears became explicit once voters listened to what the sneering, contemptuous Mitt Romney really thought of them, and all those like them, too lazy to be born to successful parents.
Given the sterile and unwelcoming vision Republicans were offering in Tampa, Democrats found themselves with the delightful prospect the following week of winning over voters by simply presenting a more compelling "choice."
And without conceding for a moment that Republicans had a monopoly on respect for individual initiative, ambition and hard work, Democrats introduced another concept that was hardly mentioned at all in Tampa: "Citizenship."
"As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that no man or government can take away," said President Obama during an acceptance speech that challenged Republican themes head-on. "We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known."
But Americans also believe in citizenship, said Obama - "a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations."
"Citizenship" is a value Obama says manifests itself when company CEOs pay their workers decent wages so they can buy the company's products, or when there are laws to prevent families from losing the value of their home through the trickery of bankers who get them to sign mortgages they can't afford, or when children are given access to great teachers so they can escape the poverty into which they've been born.
"We don't think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don't think the government is the source of all of our problems," said Obama. "We, the people recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe."
Republicans, on the other hand, view an America in which we might share the same geographic space but not a common destiny. That is clear from the way Republicans denounce Democrats as being "divisive" for their opposition to favoritism for the rich. It manifests itself in the way conservatives attack liberals with ludicrous charges of "socialism" or their imagined contempt for "success." And now this latest, desperate gambit to go after the President for being some kind of radical "re-distributionist."
Want to talk about redistribution? How about the way banks use their monopoly control of the market to redistribute income upwards from those Mom-and-Pop stores who must accept the bank's credit cards and the usurious fees that go with them or lose customers?
By this sloganeering Republicans mean to scare us away from any shared sense of citizenship in favor of what conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks just this week called the GOP's "hyper-individualistic and atomistic" anti-social view of American society.
Since Republicans love their slogans perhaps we could boil down the 2012 campaign into a contest between just two: "We are all in this together" versus "You are on your own."
That is not an argument Republicans can win because it casts them rowing against the tide of the main currents of American history.
The President was onto something much deeper and long-lasting in the American soul than Mitt Romney will ever comprehend when Obama raised the subject of citizenship during the peroration of his convention acceptance speech in August.
When America won its independence from Great Britain it was seen as a world-changing event - the famous "shot heard round the world" - says early American historian Gordon Wood. That is because the American Revolution promised more than just the elimination of kings and the opportunity for elective governments. It also offered the world "an entirely new morality."
Monarchies were utterly cynical about human nature, says Wood - just like right wing media personalities today who delight in reducing their audiences to their lowest common denominator.
Kings and queens could always count on powerful executives, complex social hierarchies, titles of honor, standing armies and established churches to maintain order and cohesion, says Wood. But republics had nothing but "the moral quality of the people themselves" as protection against being torn apart by factionalism and division, writes Wood. This is why republics are "the most delicate and fragile of states," the ones most likely to experience "political death," he says.
Republics require a very special kind of people, says Wood. They require those who possess "republican virtue," by which Wood means a willingness "to surrender their private interests for the sake of the whole."
Four score and seven years after the founders brought forth on this continent a new nation, Abraham Lincoln could still call America an experiment because Lincoln was still the only leader in all the world in charge of a democratic republic. Monarchies and authoritarian governments remained the predominant form of state even then, said Wood, because they had the advantage of presuming "that people were selfish and corrupt" and so could be kept in line through the iron fist of absolutist authority which monarchs possessed in abundance.
Republicans are strident in their boast that their party is the more patriotic of the two and that their vision of an America where collective, cooperative action of any kind is viewed as a sign of weakness reflects the genuine spirit of America. Their flagging standing with the American electorate these past few weeks voters have had a better chance to get to know them, however, suggests Americans may be turning away from this Republican Party and its vision -- in disgust, in contempt, perhaps even in shame.