If you'd have asked me a year or so ago whether the Republican or Democratic presidential nominee would have more sharply defined ideological edges in 2012, I probably wouldn't have dignified the question with an answer. If you persisted, I might have consented to lecture you in a tone I usually reserve for dim twelve-year-olds.
I'd have explained that, for most of the last twenty-some years, a lot more likely voters are self-identified conservatives than self-identified liberals, and lately there are more self-identified conservatives than self-identified moderates. That's why, I might have added, Republicans of a relatively moderate ideological bent, like H.W. Bush, Dole and McCain, end up doing poor impersonations of movement conservatives on the presidential campaign trail while pretty doctrinaire liberals, like Dukakis and Obama, sell themselves as ideologically unassuming pragmatists. When a congenitally moderate Democrat like Al Gore decided to recast himself as a doctrinaire liberal in the heat of the 2000 presidential campaign, the electoral results weren't pretty.
If anything, I'd have added, the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party figures to make its ideological edges even sharper. And having to contend with a Republican who got nominated by placating Tea Partiers would invite Obama to make his liberalism all the more unobtrusive. So it's utterly obvious, I'd have concluded, that the next Republican presidential nominee will be more insistently conservative than Obama is insistently liberal.
How's that prediction working out so far? It's looking ever more likely that Mitt Romney, the personification of ideological flabbiness, is going to secure the Republican nomination without even having to pretend to doctrinaire conservatism as he did to such comic effect in 2008. Who's going to stop him? If he gets away with it, he'll be better positioned that any Republican candidate since Gerald Ford to slip ideological punches coming at him from the left.
Stranger still, formerly reliable voices of ideologically squishy centrism like Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are suddenly telling Obama that he'll be doing "a disservice to the public, his party and his hopes for a constructive and consequential presidency" if he isn't "explicit and forceful in communicating the stark differences between the parties . . ." And the president, chastened by his failure to make political hay over the summer by championing a grand budgetary bargain splitting his ideological differences with Republicans, seems to be following their advice to the letter. If he does, he'll be the most unapologetically liberal Democratic presidential candidate at least since Mondale, and maybe since LBJ.
It's still possible, I suppose, that the revival of a conservative alternative to Romney within the Republican presidential field, and a tactical adjustment on Obama's part in light of it, will vindicate the conventional wisdom that would have been the subject of my lecture. But that's looking like a more remote possibility every day.