“America remains a center-right nation–a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril,” Newsweek declares above a piece by Jon Meacham for the October 27 issue of the magazine. As Rick Perlstein observes in a dissenting passage in the article, it’s a difficult case to make from opinion polling; on contentious issues like healthcare, progressive taxation and the war in Iraq, strong majorities of the public take progressive positions, and even on hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage, the electorate is basically split.
So Meacham falls back on the results of national elections, which are not exactly direct expressions of popular opinion. But even here Meacham is guilty of serious cherry-picking:
Republicans have dominated presidential politics–in many ways the most personal, visceral vote we cast–for 40 years. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 general elections (1976, 1992 and 1996), and in those years they were led by Southern Baptist nominees who ran away from the liberal label.
From this, Meacham concludes that “Republicans tend to win the White House” and “an Obama presidency would be one of the few exceptions to a 40-year-old historical rule.” But surely, looking back on presidential elections over the past 64 years, the most obvious pattern is that each major party tends to hold the presidency for eight years at time; the one exception since 1944 came in 1980, when Jimmy Carter failed to win re-election and Republicans subsequently got three terms in a row; other than that, it’s been even-steven since Harry Truman’s first term.
And while the presidential vote may be more “personal” and “visceral,” the House of Representatives vote probably reflects public opinion most closely–and Democrats have controlled the House for 28 of Meacham’s 40 years. (That’s the same percentage that Republicans have held the White House.) Clearly, you can’t equate Democrats with progressives, but at the same time, a serious look at elections doesn’t provide much evidence for Meacham’s center-right slant.
So what Meacham’s left with, essentially, is his historical intuition that “we are at heart a right-leaning country skeptical of government once a crisis that requires government has passed.” And when you’re talking about a writer who includes FDR as one of those Democratic presidents who “[wound] up moving farther right than they thought they ever would,” and lumps Thomas Jefferson in with David Brooks and Sarah Palin as people who “who value custom over change” and “dislike those who appear condescending about matters of faith”–that’s not much to go on.
Update: Here’s David Sirota’s take on the Meacham piece.