Salena Zito
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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.”

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Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.