Past Is Prologue in Presidential Race’s Closing Arguments

The 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, a $2 billion cacophony of promises for the future, is ending with homages to the recent past

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event in Hilliard, Ohio, on Nov. 2, 2012.

Nothing is new anymore. The new winter fashion is still stripes and bright color. The new television sitcoms feature single women in big cities. John Grisham tops the best-seller list. Even in politics, everything is repurposed nostalgia. The 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, a $2 billion cacophony of promises for the future, is ending with homages to the recent past.

For Mitt Romney, it’s 2008 all over again. Except this time, he is playing the role of Barack Obama, the inspirational candidate who can heal the nation, fix Washington and deliver change. In Iowa on Sunday, he announced, “This time demands bringing America together.” He promised to work with politicians of both parties. “This has gathered the strength of a movement,” he said later, in Pennsylvania, of his own campaign. “I ask you to vote for real change,” he continued. “I won’t just represent one party. I will represent one nation.”

For Barack Obama, it’s 2004 all over again. Except this time, he is playing the role of George W. Bush, the incumbent President with a significant technological and logistical campaign advantage. All the numbers look like they did before. Obama’s approval rating on the eve of the election neatly matches Bush’s in late October 2004. The national polls, and the polls in Ohio, which looks again to be the decisive state, match up too.

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On the stump, Obama has traded Bush’s national-security attacks on John Kerry for economic attacks on Romney. “You know me,” Obama told a crowd in Ohio on Saturday. “You may not agree with every decision I’ve made … but you know what I believe. You know where I stand.” Without attribution, Obama was quoting Bush, who told a crowd in Toledo, Ohio, on Oct. 29, 2004, “Americans have seen how I do my job. Even when you might not agree with me, you know what I believe, you know where I stand.”

Neither candidate’s pitch means much when removed from the rhetoric of a late-fall stump speech. Romney, the one promising unity, has promised for two years a frontal assault on Democrats from Day One in office, when he plans to begin the repeal of Obamacare. A year ago, Romney promised to veto a deficit compromise that included just one dollar of new taxes for every $10 of spending cuts, a position that would all but ensure gridlock for his Administration’s agenda in a Democratic Senate. As the Associated Press pointed out, as Romney promised national unity, he also cut an ad supporting a Republican candidate in North Dakota that promises to “stop the liberal Reid-Pelosi agenda.’’

As for Obama, his quotations of Bush are belied by his own campaign anthem. At every rally for nearly a year, he has walked on stage to the same song, “City of Blinding Lights,” a rock ballad from the Irish group U2 that begins, “The more you see, the less you know/ The less you find out as you go.” It’s a fitting pick for a leader who has struggled to connect with Washington and struggled to hold the connection with his supporters from 2008. “If we know him, why does he seem so much slighter than the Barack Obama who thrilled the country a mere four years ago?” asked the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, one of most prominent liberal opinion writers in the nation, in her final last pre-election column. “If we know him, why were we so stunned at his crimped, self-destructive performance in the first debate.”

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But the closing arguments don’t matter so much. As Obama said in Virginia on Saturday, “I’m sort of a prop in the campaign.” The race has been stable since the summer. The country is narrowly divided. The polls differ only in who they predict will turn out to vote on Tuesday. That outcome will almost certainly have more to do with the invisible mechanics of modern, billion-dollar campaigns than the final utterances of their candidates on the stump.

Despite the rhetoric on both sides, this has become an election about small things — about targeted messages for a few million voters in a half-dozen swing states. There is more enthusiasm on the Republican side but no real movement for either man; Obama remains the measurable favorite. And the victor wins stewardship of a federal government that will likely continue to deadlock, on the brink of national self-immolation. If 2008 was ultimately an election about hope, this one has been defined more by fear over the path the country has taken since the financial implosion of 2008. Whoever wins, the country will most likely get the most predictable outcome: closely divided, deeply polarized and faced with the same hard problems, and same painful list of possible solutions, that the nation faced last year before this campaign even began.

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