Every two to four years since 1992, we have found ourselves with a new realigning election -- one that shifts things "forever" in one party's favor, only to come apart shortly thereafter in a re-realignment or a draw.
Ideologies show no patterns of permanent dominance. There seems one signal of reliability: In each election of the modern political era (since 1980, when the parties became markedly more ideological), the presidency always has gone to the party that fielded the best politician, the most gifted and supple political animal, and the better political team.
Derided at first as too old (69), too right-wing and too prone to bomb countries, Ronald Reagan is acknowledged now as one of the great talents of the 20th century, able to put away both Jimmy Carter and the stolid, boring Walter F. Mondale without even breaking a sweat. Four years later, we were given two technocrats, with the elder George Bush doing a better job of pretending to be a middle American. (Remember the pork rinds?) Michael Dukakis posed in a tank, expressed indifference to the rapes and assaults committed by a killer given a furlough by one of his programs and, in a question posed in a debate by a journalist, to the hypothetical murder and rape of his wife.
Having beaten Dukakis, Bush was no match for the talents of William J. Clinton, who four years later (with the help of a rapidly booming economy) defeated Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, proving again that men who know, love and master the Senate -- see also Ted Kennedy -- run bad presidential campaigns. John Kennedy, who ran a good one, had an executive temperament, was bored by the Senate and spent most of his time there on what had been and always was his real interest, thinking and speaking of foreign affairs.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush, a better political horse than his father, nosed out Al Gore and then beat John Kerry, who were both charitably described as "uncharismatic" and less charitably as "wooden" and "stiff."
In 2008, the Democrats found another uberperformer in Barack Obama, a master orator, and a "clean and articulate," half-African, Ivy League wonder -- a man born to wring votes from the American people, and against whom John McCain (another longtime Senate denizen) had no idea how to campaign. In 2008, Obama had the good luck to be boosted by the financial catastrophe, and in 2012 the even better luck to be running against a man who was less a subprime politician than no politician at all.
A few years ago, basketball great Michael Jordan decided he wanted to try to play baseball and found out his skills didn't convey in another arena. Business great Mitt Romney should have thought this one over before trying his crossover move into politics. He found that application and effort can take you only so far without instinct and talent.
"So far" was still within three points of an incumbent and iconic trail-blazing president, backed by a dogged and brilliant (in its grim way) campaign. Let us note too that our last three two-term presidents all came up with teams of advisers from their home regions who loved them, understood them and remained fiercely loyal, while campaigns that lose have very expensive consultants for hire, who fight with each other, leak endlessly and turn on their employers when the damage is done.
Parties rise and fall, and all have done so quite recently, but nothing succeeds like a good politician. Perhaps this is all that it takes.
Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."