"Gerald Ford will always be president." That's a cynical piece of Washington wisdom that you can find a) discomfiting, or b) reassuring. But c), it is an enduring truth. The centrist center of gravity in this town is that strong.
Such centrist reality is distressing to the left today, just as it was distressing to the right in the era of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove.
I am writing before the results of Election Day 2009 are known, but it's a cinch that the electoral results will be a check on progressive ambitions. As has been obvious all year, conservative/libertarian/tea-partying energy has been surging since Barack Obama's inauguration. The latest Gallup Poll, for example, finds the percentage of self-identified conservatives on the rise, while the percentage of self-identified liberals is declining.
A year ago, according to Gallup, conservatives outnumbered liberals by 15 points, 37 to 22. Today, conservatives have ticked up three points, and liberals have ticked down two points; 40 percent of Americans now call themselves conservative, just 20 percent liberal -- a 2:1 advantage for conservatives. Politicians are doing the math; center-right beats center-left.
Which brings up another Beltway lesson: Ideology and power generally go in opposite directions. Ideological movements arise in reaction to the perceived abuses and excesses of the incumbents, and then those movements recede when "their" side takes power. Of course, the most ardent wings, left and right, will never be happy with much that anyone in power does, no matter what his or her label. That's the price that those respective wings pay for being in the fringe ideological deciles of the population; by definition, they are always on the outside looking in.
The point here is that the political equivalent of the statistical concept of regression always kicks in after an election: Things are never as good as you hope, nor as bad as you fear. The middling middle triumphs: Hello, President Ford.
There have been exceptions, of course, to this muddle-through rule. Such instances are sufficiently rare in American history that they get their own special term: "realignment." And there have been only four of five realignments in American history. Franklin Roosevelt and his New Dealers led one one the 1930s and 40s, and Ronald Reagan and his Reagan Revolutionaries led another in the the 1980s -- although once again, the level of change the Reaganites achieved was deeply disappointing to "movement" conservatives.
A year ago, Obama might have thought that he was going to be another FDR -- an admiring media told him he could do it -- but it hasn't happened. Perhaps the situation might have been different if Obama had put more emphasis, sooner, on the primary issues of jobs and mortgages, thus cementing the loyalties of worse-off swing voters. But instead, Obama chose healthcare and global warming, and he pursued those secondary issues with no great competence.
So no Rooseveltian realignment for Obama, just Clintonian regression.
So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.