Scott Stirrett
Scott Stirrett

With only two months to go until the 2012 election, President Obama has an average lead in the polls of only a few percentage points, according to realclearpolitics.com. In essence, the race is tied.

With the numbers so close, it’s really anyone’s guess at this point whether President Obama will win a second term in office. It is often said that two weeks is a long time in politics and two months is an eternity. A lot can still happen before election day.

But some of the biggest determinants of the fall elections are largely out of the control of either candidate. For instance, neither has much say in whether Greece chooses to exit — or gets thrown out of — the Euro Zone, which could substantially impact the American economy and thus the elections.

That being said, there is still great potential for both presidential campaigns to shift the 2012 election in a whole new direction.

Contrary to the glee that many of my fellow Democrats felt when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was announced as Romney’s vice presidential nominee, I actually believe it was quite a shrewd choice.

As scores of Republican commentators have argued, the Ryan pick brought economic issues to the forefront. The national unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, and millions more Americans have simply chosen to leave the workforce. It may not always be justified, but voters tend to blame the incumbent for economic problems.

Moreover, while the adjective “wonkish” is often used to describe Ryan, he is in some ways equally passionate about social issues. While many GOP voters are both fiscal and social conservatives, a substantial number of Republicans subscribe to only one of the aforementioned realms of conservatism, and it is important for Republicans to work to appeal to both major constituencies.

As in 2010, the Tea Party is making it difficult for the Republican Party to appeal to more moderate voters. One need only look at current headlines and the scandal surrounding Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.), inflammatory remarks regarding rape. In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was able to win a fifth term in large part because he had the good fortune of facing Tea Partier Sharon Angle. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) may also be able to pull off re-election because of her opponent Akin’s lack of sensibility.

Consequently, the Democrats in this race have increasingly made this election about cultural modernity and the GOP’s opposition to many facets of it. The fact that the Obama campaign has decided to use the slogan “forward” indicates how Democrats have worked to present themselves as the party of the future.

In some ways, this is a dangerous path to follow. Placing so much emphasis on representing the future leaves room for Republicans to portray Democrats as not being the party of the present.

The reality is that the United States is changing economically, socially and demographically at a rapid pace. These changes have caused increased social alienation, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party.

That is the main challenge for Democrats: How do you present yourself as the party of the future when it is the future and the accompanying changes that scare so many voters?
Americans are uncertain about their future. They’re witnessing the rise of countries like India and China as the United States’ global dominance seems to disintegrate. At home, they see a stagnating economy. And many older Americans see a country that is being transformed in a way that would have been hard to forecast half a century ago.

That is why the GOP has rather unapologetically run as the party of the nation’s past. One has only to listen to a few minutes of Romney’s stump speech before hearing lines about “restoring America” to its former glory.

The 2012 elections have come down to a debate between one vision that looks hopefully to the future and another that looks fondly to the past. Who will win at this point is anyone’s guess, but much of the result will hinge on each party’s ability to present the aforementioned narratives effectively.

Scott Stirrett is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.

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