It is one of the givens of American politics: Presidential candidates don't run campaigns from the philosophical extremes of their parties. They run them from the middle. Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon wrote a book about it, The Real Majority, back in the 1960s when they were concerned that the Democratic left was being too tough on Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
But even then, running from the middle was an axiom of American politics.
Well, the election of 2012 is going to put this truism to the test. Only one potential Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, even has a chance to run from something approaching the middle -- and even his campaign is unlikely to be near the center of American politics. (I'm discounting Jon Huntsman's ability to obtain the Republican nomination.)
If any other of the announced candidates is nominated (and I'll include Sarah Palin and Rick Perry in the list), the Republicans won't be running from the middle -- or the center-right for that matter. They'll be running from as far right as any candidate since Calvin Coolidge (that's right, these Republicans make Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan appear moderate). Perhaps even further to the edge than Silent Cal was back in 1924.
If a Michele Bachmann or a Rick Perry can actually win the presidency, then something significant has changed in American politics. Look to the rise of the conservative media: Fox News, talk radio, the Internet. The Supreme Court taking the lid off of corporate campaign contributions probably doesn't hurt either.
So, the middle is wide open. President Obama thinks that if he grabs it, his re-election is virtually assured, just as American political history teaches.
Now, I don't believe that this move is strictly political. It reflects the essence of Barack Obama, which would appear to be grounded in his bi-racialism.
In fact, the peak moments of Obama's career usually highlight his ability to bridge gaps, to relate to opposites. It is said that he was elected the president of the Harvard Law Review (yes, an elected position) because of this skill.
At the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama's brilliant oratory brought him to national attention. It is often ignored that while he radiated passion, the subject of his passion was Americans overcoming their differences -- political and otherwise. His keynote was entitled "Out of Many, One". ("... (t)here is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America.")
Obama's desire to bring sides together is at his very core.
But this aspiration also has led him as president to position himself in ways that most would consider... hmmm... what's a sensitive word... "naïve".
It started when he said that he wanted to "transform" the federal government. But while the right wing imagined that he wanted to turn the United States into a socialist paradise, he actually aspired to bring Washington together, to make it less partisan.
How can you assume what your political opponents are willing to do? And why do you make yourself vulnerable to their political calculations?
The problem is not that the president wants to be a compromiser. Virtually every president is a compromiser.
But Obama wants to be the guy who proposes the compromise first. He wants to be the "deal cutter". He wants to be "reasonable".
Meanwhile, his opponents aren't positioning themselves as "reasonable". No, they are positioning themselves as "principled".
When the president places himself in the middle, there is no one on the wing to create a strong negotiating position. With Obama establishing the liberal position on any given issue in the center of the possibilities, the deal inevitably is cut further to the right than necessary.
As the recent debt ceiling fight confirms: First Obama wanted a clean debt-limit increase. Then he changed his position to a major deal as long as it included tax increases. The final deal had no tax increases but included both budget reductions exceeding the rise in the debt ceiling and a commission that could lead to much more appalling cuts from a liberal perspective. And while the next debt ceiling increase was postponed until after the next election, the commission process will almost certainly mean that this fight hasn't really been postponed either.
By the way, liberals shouldn't fool themselves into believing that this behavior is limited to Obama. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says that he will appoint "principled" members to the Budget Commission. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid (D-NV) says he will appoint "flexible" ones.
Is Obama's positioning what the American people want from their president?
Do the American people want their president to be the deal-cutter? President Reagan was often a compromiser, but he didn't position himself in the middle to cut the deal. President George W. Bush wasn't a deal cutter.
No, the American people want their president to be a leader. They want their leader to be both "principled" and "reasonable". When he isn't principled, it alienates those who are not politically involved. And it disheartens those who are involved -- as part of the president's base -- even more.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently wrote that Americans don't love Barack Obama because he is a loser, and the American people don't like a loser.
But that's just wrong -- and obnoxious. Obama has a substantial list of political achievements. He isn't a loser -- at least not yet.
More likely, Obama isn't loved because he's a disappointment. Because he has run from his base over and over again. Because he's too anxious to be loved by both sides. Apparently, "unrequited" is a word he's not familiar with.
Another Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens, takes issue with his colleague and says that the chances that one of the current GOP hopefuls will defeat Mr. Obama in 2012 are zero.
Perhaps. Obama's personality and his political strategy merge -- aiming for the center, just as American politics has always required. But if Obama does lose, if "principled" beats "reasonable", future presidential candidates will have to calibrate just how far to the middle they can afford to move. And presidential candidates of the extremes will now have a realistic shot.
And American politics will have changed... historically.