The frequency with which the 2012 presidential election comes up in my casual conversations is increasing as 2011 progresses, and the general outlook I've mentioned on here several times has not changed. Obama is vulnerable and the GOP field is historically bad. Romney has the potential to beat him but probably can't win the nomination. Daniels could be a legitimate challenger but is viewed as essentially a Communist by the GOP base (recent pandering aside).

Romney could win because he is polished and projects a competent, moderate image. Note that he may or may not actually possess those qualities; the important thing is that he appears to. He would not be a slam dunk or even the favorite. He is merely better than the rest of his field. It is plausible that he could win, which is more than we can say of Newt Gingrich and the rest of the peanut gallery.

Let's say the economy continues to falter – a safe bet. Let's say Mitt convinces voters that as a businessman he is somehow better suited to fix it. Let's say he deflects concerns that as a Mormon he might hold extreme right positions on social issues (or alternatively that Evangelical voters get very excited by the prospect that he does). Let's say Obama can't recreate the magic and excitement of 2008 among a demoralized base made up of people who have heard it all before and have so very little to show for it after four years. Romney squeaks out wins in Ohio and Florida, backing his way into the White House by a few Electoral Votes.

The more I think about this possibility – again, I consider it plausible, not certain or even highly likely – the more trouble I have with my feelings about it. The thing is, I've realized that I don't really care if Mitt Romney wins. With all due respect to the many people who stridently believe that Barack Obama has accomplished a lot thus far, the available evidence strongly supports the contention that he is essentially an Eisenhower Republican. If Romney is truly a New England moderate Republican as I believe he is – someone in the Lowell Weicker / Ed Brooke / Jacob Javits tradition – will any of the outcomes be fundamentally different? Our dominant fiscal policy will still be cutting everyone's taxes. The wars will stagger on aimlessly and without an end in sight. Interest groups and major industries will continue to write all of the legislation that comes out of Congress. The Justice Department will sit around on its thumb. The regulatory and welfare state will continue to be dismantled. All of this is happening now. True, Romney is more conservative on social stuff like abortion and gay rights, but given the same Congress, what is really going to change on those issues in the next four years anyway? It's not like he's going to reinstate DADT now that the curtain has been lifted.

My single biggest disincentive to participate in politics in this country is the lack of meaningful alternatives. The entire political system has shifted so far to the right that we are essentially choosing between a loose center-right coalition and a group of well-organized ultraconservatives when we choose between the major parties. As an article I linked a couple weeks ago stated well:

There was also a sharp change in the U.S. economy in the 1970s, towards financialization and export of production. A variety of factors converged to create a vicious cycle of radical concentration of wealth, primarily in the top fraction of 1% of the population – mostly CEOs, hedge-fund managers, and the like. That leads to the concentration of political power, hence state policies to increase economic concentration: fiscal policies, rules of corporate governance, deregulation, and much more. Meanwhile the costs of electoral campaigns skyrocketed, driving the parties into the pockets of concentrated capital, increasingly financial: the Republicans reflexively, the Democrats – by now what used to be moderate Republicans – not far behind.

Elections have become a charade, run by the public relations industry. After his 2008 victory, Obama won an award from the industry for the best marketing campaign of the year.

The feeling of powerlessness that accompanies the absence of choice is profound and I imagine it affects many Americans, voters and non-voters alike. If it honestly doesn't make much difference if Mitt Romney gets elected (You may disagree on that, of course, but it's where I'm at) what does that say about the Democratic brand? How badly damaged is the party? As the last three years have repeatedly shown, it has become a second, slightly more PR-savvy party of corporatists; the GOP-Democrat differences are largely on the margins and the Democrats' best selling point appears to be that they are not Republicans. That's why you and I will drag ourselves out to the polls to cast Obama votes with zero enthusiasm and the sneaking suspicion that while we prefer the Blue puppet, getting the Red one really wouldn't make much of a difference.