WASHINGTON – A friend once told me, after completing a cross-country drive, that he always thought you should feel somehow different as you crossed a state line. No doubt it was a feeling left over from grade-school geography classes, in which U.S. maps showed each state in different, vibrant colors.
Instead, the difference is unnoticeable. Changes in terrain can be the most dramatic but usually are gradual; so are changes in dialect.
Whether they live on Elm Street in North Platte, Neb., or Mulberry Street in Springfield, Mass., Americans remain the same at their very core.
One consistent characteristic I found in a 20-state journey this year was the shuttered businesses and the dollar-stores clustered around struggling downtowns. The one exception is Washington, D.C.
As you enter the District, a line of economic demarcation appears even to the casual eye – and it is the perfect metaphor for everything that has gone wrong for Democrats in this election cycle.
Specialty grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants bustle here. Dollar-stores are less evident or non-existent, and construction projects clog the traffic grid.
"Things look better in Washington because they are," says Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank here. "Government is growing bigger, so that means more jobs in the seat of government."
As many liberals rail against what they perceive as the socially-right, "wackadoodle" tea party, what they miss is that such voters care little about social issues but very much about fiscal ones.
Alas, that makes for a dull narrative and less ability to demonize, so they hand-pick the few instances of craziness and say, "See how they are?"
When the unwashed masses head to voting booths in less than two days, they will be thinking about how our growing government has affected their lives.
Every poll shows they don’t like it. The degree of that dislike will be the political hangover that begins Wednesday morning after the votes are counted.
Philadelphia Democrat Larry Ceisler says his party must learn how to embrace the fiscal tea party members, not demonize them, where they have lost Democrats or independent voters.
"My concern began in the handling of the health-care reform," Ceisler says. "The left wing kept tugging and pulling Congress left. The evidence was in the daily e-mails by very liberal grassroots groups funded by SEIU, and they were just pulling Democrats to a place way out of the mainstream."
The result for Democrats, he says, is a very fractured party that failed to govern in the middle or to listen to voters. "Lesson learned: When people are suffering and the economy is on everyone’s mind, then focus on the economy."
With the exception of school reform, President Obama and the 111th Congress do not have any policy initiatives that enable them to appear centrist, or to appear as if they are doing something prudent to help the sluggish economy.
"Because the president has never really lived in a ‘red’ state, he doesn’t know how to communicate with red-state folks," says Bob Maranto, a University of Arkansas political scientist.
In the 2008 campaign, Obama talked about how he worked his way up from relative disadvantage, how he loves America’s openness and opportunities, how he is a man of faith. Such talk ended the moment he was elected.
"The president’s narrative now is that ‘I’m a good guy, but you dumb Americans just don’t understand how great my policies are,’ " Maranto says. "That narrative didn’t work for (Jimmy) Carter, so I don’t see it working for Obama."
Mark Stein, author of "How the States got their Shape," says that if the federal government drew state lines today, we definitely would feel a difference upon entering each state "because that redistribution would be geopolitical."
Yet this year, across the board, all geopolitical lines are blurred: Liberals, conservatives, moderates, Republicans, independents, Democrats, Wall Street and, most importantly, Main Street are all are unhappy with the results, and that has fueled voter outrage.
Most Democrats are running away from the major policies they helped to enact while Republican candidates are capitalizing on their opposition to those, explains Jeff Brauer, a public-policy expert.
On Tuesday you will see plenty of pundits quibble over the word "concern" as it relates to the voters’ mood. They probably won’t use the word "fear," so they will miss the point.
This election is not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about people who don’t like what has happened in the last 10 years – and about Obama, who has moved them from anger with Bush to fear for the future.