They appear with the regularity of 17-year cicadas, the 11-year sunspot cycle and newborns nine months following a major power outage. After every presidential election, otherwise discerning individuals make the dubious claim that a candidate's victory establishes a historic mandate. Even more outlandishly, they'll argue that an election marks a permanent realignment in American politics.
Call them the 4-year fantasizers. And they're popping up all over in the fall of 2008.
Let's stipulate that Barack Obama's election was historic and the Democratic rout of Republicans was significant. Do the results give Obama a unique claim on executive authority, and has the United States entered a new progressive era of Democratic majorities?
The first answer is an easy one. Obama defeated John McCain in the popular vote by a margin of 52-46 percent. That's an incremental improvement on George W. Bush's 51-48 percent defeat of John Kerry in 2004.
Put another way, Obama is the third Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win an outright majority in a presidential election, after Lyndon Johnson did so in a landslide in 1964 and Jimmy Carter by a hair in 1976. Whatever mandates Obama's predecessors believed that distinction conferred, both left office deeply unpopular after only four years.
Here is Bush speaking to reporters two days after the 2004 election: "I've earned capital in this election, and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is you've heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror."
Reading those words today, especially in light of Bush's record-low approval rating, is a reminder that electoral mandates are only as good as a president's most recent accomplishment or failure.
Some pundits mused four years ago that the Bush victory, along with modest Republican gains in the House and Senate, signaled the achievement of Karl Rove's goal of a permanent Republican majority. Rove was more modest.
"There are no permanent majorities in American politics," Bush's political architect told Tim Russert on Meet the Press. "They last for about 20 or 30 or 40, or, in the case of the Roosevelt coalition, 50 or 60 years, and then they disappear."
Only two years later, in 2006, Democrats retook congressional majorities by gaining 31 seats in the House and five in the Senate. Now, after Democrats have padded their majorities with 20 House seats and at minimum 7 Senate seats, there's talk about an anti-Rovian permanent Democratic majority.
Does 2008 or 2006 mark the beginning of a new realignment in American politics? That's a little tougher to answer. It's like determining whether a basketball team has established a winning dynasty after only one or two victories.
The best comparison may be with the post-Watergate era. In the 1974 midterm election, voters disgusted with the Vietnam War and the scandal-plagued Nixon White House gave Democrats a 49-seat boost in the House, a 3-seat improvement in the Senate and overwhelming majorities in Congress. In 1976, they put Carter in the White House.
To a lot of political prognosticators, that looked like a political realignment. Four years later, however, Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory and Republicans took control of the Senate.
Of those who look for political eras and turning points, whether in 1976 or 2008, author Ron Suskind wrote recently in the New York Times Magazine: "They start with a roar, the declaration that a particular dawn is different from all its predecessors a case made, day by day, over years of sunrises."
No doubt, the sun shines brightly on Obama and the Democrats today. But tomorrow brings a new sunrise, and political forecasts like weather forecasts are rarely accurate beyond a short time frame. The only thing certain is that in four years, the victors in 2012 will fantasize about mandates and realignments and pay little attention to the historical evidence.