As the 2008 electoral calendar moves inexorably from primary season to the climactic partisan battle of the fall, both parties prefer to ignore the painful reality of a narrowly divided electorate and to consider their candidates in the light of false nostalgia.
Democrats view Barack Obama as a youthful savior in the mode of John F. Kennedy or the Bill Clinton of 16 years ago — a handsome political magician who will electrify the country and sweep to overwhelming victory.
Republicans look at John McCain and sigh, worried that he can't measure up to the idolized Reagan — who came riding out of the West with a rock-solid record, united all conservatives, and instantly established a durable right-wing majority.
Such "recollections" amount to a sad example of political veterans rhapsodizing over their youthful adventures while embellishing, or misremembering, the truth about the past.
The 43-year-old Kennedy fell far short of soaring victory in 1960 — beating the charismatically challenged Richard Nixon by the narrowest of margins (49.7% of the popular vote to 49.5%). Clinton also failed to win a majority of his fellow citizens, not once but twice: Thanks to Ross Perot's third-party ego trips, he won the White House with only 43% of the vote in 1992 and 49.2% in 1996.
As for Reagan, he similarly benefited from a third-party candidacy (by the now-forgotten John Anderson) and won his famous landslide victory over the deeply unpopular Jimmy Carter with only 51% of the vote (the same percentage earned by the controversial George W. Bush in 2004). Moreover, Reagan bore far more resemblance to McCain than today's purist conservatives want to acknowledge: as one of the oldest newly elected presidents (only two years younger than McCain's would-be inauguration age of 72) and a pragmatist whose gubernatorial record in California (signing a bill to legalize abortion, raising taxes to cover deficits) offended right-wing ideologues.
An enduring deadlock
The fact that even political heroes such as Reagan, Kennedy and Clinton failed to win resounding majorities shouldn't undermine their reputations as supremely gifted campaigners. Yet even these vote-getting superstars couldn't shatter the deadlock that has afflicted presidential politics for nearly a half-century.