The pendulum swings for the powerful

For the past month I’ve been telling you what is wrong with my party, what Republicans can do to fix it and what I think we can all expect from the future of the GOP.

But if I could distill the message of the 3,000 or so words I devoted to the subject in the past month, it would be this: The pendulum of politics swings, and it will swing back.

In American politics, one party enjoys an advantage for awhile, but invariably the opposing party adapts and regains the advantage. There is no such thing as a permanent realignment.

Franklin Roosevelt didn’t destroy the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan didn’t destroy the Democrats. Political power is cyclical.

Sadly, this is a lesson that is never learned by the victors in elections.

Every time a new leader or group comes to power, particularly in recent political history, they believe that they have done so because the voters have endorsed and validated everything about them, from their personalities to their ideological agenda.

Victory becomes validation, and, as a result, too many in politics badly over-reach, believing the voters are behind them when they aren’t. A vote, as I’ve repeatedly said this month, is about personally identifying with a candidate and party more than anything else.

Once a politician or party take actions that run counter to the electorate’s perceived identification with them, disaster strikes, and a political counterstroke begins. It happens every single time.

Take, for instance, President Barack Obama. In 2008, he ran on a theme very much aligned with his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention. He spoke of unification and of not being a disparate collection of red and blue states but one nation.

He crafted lofty speeches about responsibility and prudence. He decried war and overspending. He appealed to the common belief in most Americans that despite our differences, we have a shared cultural identity and a collective duty to our Republic.

He told us that for too long we had been irrationally dividing ourselves into groups and attacking one another, that we hadn’t lived up to the need to self-sacrifice for the greater good and that we had not been realistically living within our societal means.

That is a message that made sense to everyone. It is why so many moderates and even many Republicans were initially attracted to Obama. Despite our political differences, nearly all of us believe in that message and have been waiting for a sober adult on the political stage to say as much. Our need for national catharsis was great.

After taking office, however, the national communion with our new president began to change. Thinking his massive landslide was a mandate for his particular brand of Democratic politics, he sought to put that mandate to work on a host of issues that directly contradicted that with which so many of us identified.

Enter a stimulus package that exploded government spending and a massive new entitlement program in his health-care reform package. So many Americans had seen themselves in Obama, based on what they thought he was, and suddenly no longer saw themselves.

The rest is history. The backlash began, which culminated in the rise of the tea-party wing of the Republican Party and the historic wave of conservative victories in the 2010 midterms.

Similarly, the newly resurgent and powerful Republicans badly misread the reasons for their own success, assumed it was a popular mandate for an ideological agenda and acted accordingly.

And now we sit in 2012 with a backlash to the backlash having just happened. The likelihood of a 2014 backlash to the backlash to the backlash is actually quite high.

If this story sounds a little silly, it is. But my point is this: There is only one thing you can count on in politics, and that is that politicians tend to not understand why they win — because human nature is human nature and political power is the ultimate ego trip.

Eventually, regardless of which party we are talking about, they will always show that lack of understanding and act accordingly. There is a reason that American politics has been going back and forth like this for more than 200 years.

So, to the newly victorious Democrats, I say congratulations. Just don’t get too comfortable.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.