Adding considerable luster to the achievement of the Founding Fathers in building success and stability in the infant Republic is the fact that five of our first seven Presidents not only won and served out two terms but also departed office popular enough to insure the election of approved successors. What was achieved by five of the first seven has eluded all but four of the eighteen men elected President since 1900. Only Theodore Roosevelt (1908), Calvin Coolidge (1928), Franklin Roosevelt (1948-posthumously), and Ronald Reagan (1988) left office with sufficient popularity to effect the election of their chosen successors.
Any hope George W. Bush had of being the fifth President since 1900 to see his party win the White House three consecutive times was decisively crushed last November 4th. Instead he becomes the sixth president since 1900 to see his party driven from the White House, losers in two consecutive Congressional election cycles, and himself under a cloud of immense unpopularity. Thus W. joins Hoover, Truman, Johnson, Nixon and Carter.
Of the initial five history has largely restored the reputation of Truman; LBJ and Nixon have made only slight recovery; and Hoover and Carter are generally viewed as beyond redemption. Some time must pass before History instructs us how to think about George W. Bush.
Beyond the great distinction of becoming our nation’s first African -American President, Barrack Obama also joins FDR and LBJ as the only Democrats since 1900 to win the Presidency in a landslide.
In what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again” the punditocracy is now proclaiming fundamental political realignment and the descent of the GOP, into permanent minority status.
In 1964 when LBJ crushed Goldwater many pundits opined that the Republican Party might like the Whigs disappear altogether. Four years later the GOP was in the White House and Democrats in chaos.
In 1972 when Nixon won forty-nine states and McGovern just one, everybody was reading Kevin Phillips's The Emerging Republican Majority and saying that just as the Civil War had destroyed the Democratic Party in the 19th century, the Viet Nam War had destroyed it in the 20th. Four years later the Dems were back in the White House and the Republicans were in chaos.
In 1988 following three consecutive landslide Presidential defeats many Democrats thought their party had to be reinvented by jettisoning liberalism. Four years after the Democrats were back in the White House and liberalism was very much alive and well.
Finally in 2004 after consecutive Presidential victories and a remarkable three straight victories in Congressional election cycles Republicans were hailing Karl Rove as the Architect of a permanent GOP majority. Four years later -well, we all know what happened in 2006 and 2008.
So, what does all this tell us about American politics?
First, and foremost things can change mighty fast. It is extremely unwise to read too much into even the most stunning partisan triumphs. The American people will punish most severely even those men and parties they have extravagantly affirmed just a few years before.
Second, electoral landslides happen frequently; genuine political realignments occur very, very rarely.
Fully half (13 of 27) of the Presidential elections since 1900 have resulted in landslides.
Yet only twice in our entire history have we seen full-blown political realignment and it required the massive trauma of the Civil War and the Great Depression to trigger those.
Finally the margin between victory and defeat even in a landslide (usually defined as six or more percentage points) is very narrow. If even one voter in twenty voted the “other way” Obama’s landslide becomes a decisive victory for McCain.
Two thirds of the electorate is pretty fixed in their partisan attachment. It is the loosely bonded or independent third in the middle that decides all elections. If just one in seven of those voters switch sides from one election tot the next- pretty likely if the country is experiencing an unpopular war, a sagging economy or both- the entire electoral configuration can be transformed, hence the old adage that “All of American politics is played between the forty yard lines”.
The moral of the story ? It’s a little early to place your bets for 2012 or even 2010.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in The Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Rocky Mountain News.