It was just four years ago that the Democratic Party began its comeback in what now seems like another country. The economic collapse was not in anyone's imagination, but the nation's political mood was sour. A substantial majority was fed up with George W. Bush, weary of the Iraq war and ready to vote for Democratic congressional candidates who pledged themselves to "a new direction," a nebulous but useful slogan.
Democratic constituencies were united as never before. Young voters were flocking the party's way—those under thirty would cast 60 percent of their ballots for Democratic House candidates—and so were moderates and independents.
The tidal wave that two years later would carry Barack Obama to the presidency began rising in places not usually associated with insurrection, the vast suburban and exurban areas around the old cities of the Midwest and Northeast.
In 2006, that wave produced an upset in Pennsylvania's Bucks County by a Democrat named Patrick Murphy. Then only thirty-three, he became the first Iraq vet to serve in Congress. Murphy defeated Republican incumbent Michael Fitzpatrick by 1,518 votes out of some 250,000 cast. Murphy went on to become one of the first members of Congress to endorse Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and he won re-election with ease, earning 57 percent of the ballots and a margin that topped 50,000 votes.
In an earlier era, most incumbents with that sort of margin could rest easy. But these are not your grandfather's political cycles, and Murphy knows it. Over a late dinner at the Original Golden Eagle Diner here—he sat down only after working the crowd, thanking old friends for their support, and urging the Republicans present to split their tickets, getting in the fact that his wife is a Republican—the infectiously energetic incumbent engaged in a bit of good-natured bragging about his humility.
If Murphy survives this year's rematch against Fitzpatrick, which he expects to do, he will trace his triumph to what he did the day after his landslide two years ago. In an early morning's pouring rain, he stood outside the Cornwells Heights train station shaking hands and thanking commuters for re-electing him. Murphy knew he would not have it easy the next time around, and he was right.
No one in politics, Murphy believes, should ever count on a victory being final, and Democrats who thought that Obama would usher in his party's New Jerusalem were just plain wrong. "People were talking about a permanent majority—it was arrogant," he says. "People want to know you're fighting for them when they're hurting." If enough incumbent Democrats like Murphy survive on Tuesday through sheer energy and preparation (and I confess it's hard not to be swayed by his jaunty optimism), they will contain the damage of a difficult night.
The party believes it is gaining traction by warning voters to be wary of Republicans supported by undisclosed money from mysterious special interests who will be looking for postelection payback. Its "made in America" campaign against outsourcing has shored up some Democrats like Murphy in the old industrial states. And tea-party extremism may be frightening the base out of indifference.
But this Tuesday will still be very different from that glorious evening for Democrats four years ago, and much of the postelection analysis will focus on ideology, on whether Obama moved "too far left" and embraced too much "big government."
All this will overlook how moderate Obama's program actually is. It will also pretend that an anxiety rooted in legitimate worry about the country's long-term economic future is the result of doctrine rather than experience. Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, argues that if the Republicans do as well as they're expected to, 2010 would be the third election in a row in which voters cast ballots for change, the very quest for a "new direction" that propelled Democrats such as Murphy into office four years ago.
The classic middle-ground voter who will swing this election—moderate, independent, suburban—has always been suspicious of dogmatic promises that certain big ideas would give birth to a utopian age. This voter is looking for simpler and more realistic things: a bit more security, a bit more income, and renewed confidence that the future will be better than the past. Such voters still haven't found what they're looking for.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).