washingtonpost.com
Political blips, disguised as 'eras'

By Michael Gerson
Tuesday, November 2, 2010;

In the history of badly timed book titles, Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten hold a distinguished place. The publication of "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century" in 2006 was followed quickly by two national elections in which Democrats gained 15 Senate seats, 54 House seats and the White House. In 2008 Barack Obama became the first Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson to win an outright majority of the popular vote. He took seven states that had twice voted for George W. Bush, including two (Indiana and Virginia) that had not gone Democratic since 1964.

Which led to James Carville's 2009 book, "40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation." Carville argued: "American presidential politics is generally not a back-and-forth enterprise. There are eras in which one party dominates. Today, a Democratic majority is emerging, and it's my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next forty years."

Apparently the era of Democratic dominance will last two years. According to the polls, key groups of Obama voters - including women, Catholics, less affluent voters and independents - are abandoning Democrats in large numbers. Republican strategist Vin Weber calls it the "largest ideological shift in the shortest period of time in my lifetime."

American politics has become a back-and-forth enterprise.

Some explanations for these electoral swings are historically unique, making them difficult to generalize into principles. The political damage of the Iraq war and the response to Hurricane Katrina was specific to the Bush administration. It was politically disastrous for Obama to oversell the stimulus package and to focus on health-care reform instead of job creation. Democrats miscalculated that the economic crisis presented a New Deal moment - a chance to expand the social safety net and increase the progressivity of the tax system. Actually, most people just wanted the economy improved.

And Obama himself turned out to be a surprisingly poor politician. He has shown little ability either to explain his economic theory - can anyone describe Obamaism? - or to show empathy for the suffering. He has managed the difficult feat of deflating his supporters while energizing his critics, seeming too compromised and too extreme at the same time.

But there are broader lessons to be drawn. These rapid shifts are a warning to political commentators: Don't overinterpret a given political moment. While the ideological predispositions of most Americans are pretty well set, two factors still vary greatly from election to election - ideological intensity and the support of independents. Both political parties have proved capable of exciting their bases, appealing to independents and securing decisive majorities - and of squandering all these advantages quickly. At least in national politics, no future political outcome is predestined by current trends, demographics or other tools of tarot punditry. The Carville-like book of political predictions is a roulette guess, black or red. Either party can dominate - or fail.

These swings also hint at a deeper dynamic. The velocity of political change seems to be increasing, propelled by information technology and a breathless, polarized media. Political time has become compressed. The interval between hero worship and humiliation has narrowed. The pace of disillusionment has quickened. Americans, along with Thomas Jefferson, may like a little rebellion now and then. But indulged too frequently, the habit seems more like instability. And the world is left to wonder about the consistency, even the coherence, of American economic and foreign policy.

Above all, this recent history should provide lessons for the winners. Even decisive victories are fragile. Majorities are built with the support of both partisans and independents. Results are ultimately more important than purity. Ideological overreach provokes a backlash. In the current case, there is a genuine uprising in favor of fiscal responsibility and job-creating growth - but there is no mandate for the deconstruction of the modern state. The first revolution will be hard enough.

Following a large political victory, however, it is easier to drink deeply and dream. Which makes it likely that someone will write: "The Permanent Tea Party Majority."

michaelgerson@washpost.com

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