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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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plus ça change...

In politics, it's like the French say: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

There have been big political changes in the last four years. But for as much as things have changed, many things are still pretty much the same as they ever were.

I look to my left, and I see liberals excusing Obama's hyper-partisan moves, the same kind they attacked during the previous administration. Bush is to be condemned for dividing, not uniting. But Obama's failure to transform our tired old politics is merely an artifact of this polarized age - not to mention the pathetic rump that is the contemporary GOP. If extremists like Richard Lugar can't get on board, that's their problem. The President should simply appeal to Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents. That way, he can secure the blessings of the Permanent Democratic Majority®. Never mind the previous election that swung the other way, despite a roughly identical electorate and a hyper-partisan Republican president.

I look to my right, and I see conservatives, one Senate seat short of losing their toehold on power, making moves against Arlen Specter, a Republican who has managed to win five consecutive elections in Pennsylvania, a state that's had a Democratic tilt since the Great Depression. This is despite the fact that Jim Bunning's eccentric behavior has the party hoping he has the good sense to retire. Yet a reader trenchantly notes of Bunning: "[A]s a pitcher, Bunning stuck around untill he was 5-12 -- with a 5.48 ERA -- for the 1971 Phillies. The GOP "elders" won't succeed in pushing him out." So, the party will probably enter 2010 knowing that one seat (and potentially the filibuster) is gone - which makes it the perfect time to spend millions on an internecine battle against an ally with a 5-0 track record in a blue state.

From one perspective, this is all quite a big change from four years ago. But from another, it's the same old same old. Back then, the roles were the same, just cast differently. Republicans, completely in charge, were blaming Democrats for the partisan rancor, and touting their own permanent majority. Today, it's young voters, professionals, and Hispanics. Back then, it was exurbanites, 93 of the 100 fastest growing counties, and...Hispanics! Meanwhile, liberals were plotting against Joe Lieberman, one of their own, who (fortunately for them) was not so alienated that he decided to caucus with the GOP in the 110th Congress.

The secret of partisan politics is that both sides have more in common than they care to admit. It's like Superman and Bizzaro Superman (or, if you prefer, Jerry and Bizzaro Jerry). They're opposites, but they're exact opposites, which means you're bound to see similar patterns. For instance, many on both sides believe theirs is the repository of the good, the right, and the true - and that the other is a narrow clique of hacks or fools. Exactly opposite. So also are their views on what is appropriate political strategy. For liberals, Republicans were being petty and playing too rough from '01 to '07. But now, Democrats are doing what they have to do to get things done for the country. For conservatives, Democrats are being petty and playing too rough now, though back then Republicans were doing what had to be done. Again, exactly opposite.

In other words, when you look beyond the issues, you see two similar groups of people who happen to be set against one another. Take, as the most recent example of the similarities between the two sides, the tea parties. Liberals were dismissing them as the astroturfed efforts of a narrow clique of conservative interest groups, populated by little more than right-wing rabble-rousers. Conservatives were touting them as a genuine expression of popular outrage, a warning to the leaders of the government to heed the voice of the people. This is the exact opposite interpretation of the antiwar protests in the early part of the decade.

And so I "boldly" predict the following. When conservatives return to power, they will declare that the most recent election (but not the one before it!) really, truly settled our 100-year long ideological battle, and that the radical, liberal rump of the Democratic Party has only itself to blame for its alienation from the new, permanent majority. Liberals, meanwhile, will rediscover the virtues of bipartisanship - and take their frustrations out on their own, blaming their moderates for the party's inability to win the middle.

-Jay Cost