Coming of age during the Reagan administration gave me the misguided believe that having a truly conservative president was the norm. I accepted the reality that George H.W. Bush didn't quite measure up to Reagan's standard and learned to live with it. In 1992, I thought that Clinton's victory was an anomaly and that it was only a matter of time before another conservative in Reagan's mold was returned to the White House. When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, I hoped that he would be that next true conservative president. Whether he ever held truly conservative convictions overall is now debatable. What is not debatable is that despite some areas of success (taxes, judges, the war), his administration--particularly after 9/11--abandoned too many conservative principals to legitimately retain the label.
Now, I think we may be destined to see conservative presidents come around only at the end of a rather long cycle. Not as rare as an appearance by Halley's Comet, more like the length of time between playoff appearances by the Brewers. Here is what I think this cycle might look like:
1960-1968 Eight years of Democratic rule under Kennedy/Johnson
1968-1976 Eight years of Republican rule under the not very conservative presidents Nixon and Ford
1976-1980 The unpopularity of the Nixon administration and negative economic and international events lead the country to embrace change in the form of four years of Jimmy Carter
1980-1992 The four years of Carter are even worse paving the way for the real conservative Reagan and the less conservative Bush
1992-2000 The cycle begins again with eight years of Democratic rule under Clinton
2000-2008 Eight years of Republican rule under the not very conservative Bush
2008 The unpopularity of the Bush administration and negative economic events lead the country to embrace change in the form of four years of Barack Obama?
2012-? The four years of Obama are even worse paving the way for the real conservative ???
So what I'm saying is that you only get a truly conservative president every thirty-two years. In fairness to the Brewers, it was only twenty-six years between their most recent playoff appearances.
Obviously there are a lot of holes that can be punched in this cycle theory and trying to compare administrations and parties across decades is fraught with peril. I may also be simply engaging in wishful thinking to make it easier to swallow the coming Obama presidency. However, I believe that there are some interesting parallels to think about.
The biggest problem that I see in completing the cycle in 2012 is that there isn't an obvious Reaganesque conservative waiting in the wings. Unless the Governor of Louisiana continues his impressive run and expands his national profile dramatically in the next four years.
The other insight that comes from examining the previous political cycles is to realize how quickly fortunes can change. It was only six years from the nadir of Watergate to the election of Ronald Reagan. And think back to 2002 when the Republicans were ascendant and pundits were talking about a long-term GOP majority. That too was only six years ago.
Conservatives may very well be headed into the political wilderness after this year's election. But the wandering may not necessarily be as long and the journey back to relevance not as painful as some now fear.