HOW THE MIDDLE GROUND MOVES
I don't agree with Charles Blow's assertion that the current uptick in support for the GOP actually conceals the beginnings of "a slow slide into obscurity" for the party -- I think, alas, it has a new lease on life, and was never as wounded as a lot of people thought it was -- but I find this noteworthy:
There is no doubt that the number of people who say that they are conservative has inched up. According to a report from Gallup on Thursday, conservatives finished 2009 as the No. 1 ideological group. But ideological identification is no predictor of electoral outcomes. According to polls by The New York Times, conservative identification was slightly higher on the verge of Bill Clinton's first-term election and Barack Obama's election than it was on the verge of George W. Bush's first-term election.
In a way, that makes sense. You get elected president in this country not by persuading voters that your ideology is better, but by persuading them that you're not ideological at all -- you're just an embodiment of plain old Americanism, and the other guy is the ideologue. The first Clinton election is somewhat of a muddle because of Perot, but when Obama was elected, it makes sense that many of his voters saw themselves as moderates. The same for Bush's electorate (though he lost the popular vote, so that one's a bit of a muddle, too).
When you actually start doing something as president, however, it's hard to sustain the sense that you're the centrist. I'd say it's harder for Democrats, because Republicans attack them harder, and the press does too, desperately seeking to overcorrect impressions of "liberal bias." But even Bush was struggling in 2001 -- he was increasingly perceived as an ideologue, until 9/11 happened. (As we see post-underwear bomber, we rally around the president after a crisis or near-crisis a hell of a lot more if he's a Republican, again because of the aggression gap between the parties and media overcorrection.)
I'm still waiting for the Democratic president who actually figures out how to sell Democratic ideas as plain old Americanism. Clinton, I suppose, did it to some extent. FDR, obviously, was much more successful. Reagan, alas, did it on the other side. Bush did it when 9/11 turned out to be a gift. I wonder if Obama will learn how.