11/24/2010 10:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Center Folds

The collective Center took what President Obama characterized as a "shellacking" in the 2010 midterm elections. The carnage at the center hit both sides of the aisle.

GOP moderates, already in rhetorical retreat from the 2006 and 2008 elections, saw their decline turn into a ballot-box drubbing in the 2010 primaries. The general election weeded out the most cartoonish of the Tea Party candidates for Senate, and was not kind to self-financed millionaire candidates either. But the more conservative GOP candidates who prevailed over party favorites in primaries usually went on to win seats in the general election, particularly in the House.

As the party in power, the Democrats frowned on primary challenges. For the most part, center-leaning party favorites either went unchallenged in primaries or prevailed by outspending challengers.

But that did not prevent the general election from becoming Black Tuesday for Blue Dogs. More than half of the Blue Dog caucus in the House will not return with the 112th Congress: 23 by defeat, 4 by retirement, 2 by running for Senate, reducing their numbers from 54 to 25. By contrast, the Progressive Caucus lost only 4 of its 79 seats.

Losses on the Right. Losses on the Left. The Center folded.

So what's going on? The story cannot be as simple as a shift to the right. If that were the case, Progressives should have had much bigger losses and GOP moderates should have had far more success. So while a shift to the right is the outcome of the election, I think we have to look deeper for the cause.

My current best pet theory starts with the observation that people are more uncomfortable with uncertainty than they are with either adversity or risk. And these times are fraught with uncertainty! What bank, what market, or what nation, will be next to have an unexpected meltdown over a weekend? Which family member will be next to lose a job, lose a house, or face catastrophic medical expenses?

People hate uncertainty. Be brave: but how? Be proactive: by doing what? This too shall pass: but when? There will be help: just who? And the most central question of all: why?

In calmer times, most people like compromise, for the same reason they like meatballs: a little bit of everything, not too much of anything, easy to digest. But in uncertain times, even a bland diet of compromise ideas upsets the body politic, because the tame mix of old ideas just doesn't work any more. It doesn't fix the problems. It doesn't even explain them.

So I think people are looking for theories they can re-organize their political beliefs around. Ideas that help them understand what is happening to them. Ideas that guide what to do, what policies to follow, what laws to write, what programs to implement.

People will latch on to ideas even if they are not complete, correct, or even coherent. The stronger the uncertainty, the stronger the yearning for organizing ideas. Ironically, the stronger the yearning, the less critical people become of the completeness, correctness, or even coherency of the ideas they are willing to adopt. So this theory predicts that in uncertain times like these, the farther Left and the farther Right will get more traction than usual, because they have clearer, simpler ideas, and are more actively promoting them.

The party out of power has the advantage in communicating ideas. They don't have the distraction of actually trying to run the government. They can focus on the persuasiveness of their ideas and how they are presented. The in-power side gets to worry about the gritty details of implementation, the give-and-take of actual legislation, and the surprises of a chaotic and often unfriendly world. Obama as much as admitted it in a post-election mea culpa press conference.

In summary, in uncertain times:
  • Ideas matter more than program specifics.
  • It is more important for ideas to be understandable than complete, correct, or coherent.
  • Communicating ideas influences more votes than accomplishments.
  • The party or group that is more focused on communicating has the advantage.

My theory explains both why the Center folded in 2010, and why the Right did better than the Left. I will assert that it is a coherent theory, even if it is far from complete and possibly not even correct. But I will end by asserting that the great legacy of our most transformational Presidents -- like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan -- was their ideas, even more than their programs.

The very greatest Presidents never stopped campaigning. Which, in a democracy, seems not only fair, but reasonable.

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