Is this an election about revolution or restoration?
In January 1649, revolutionaries led by Oliver Cromwell executed King Charles I after they decided that he was both too Catholic and that he ignored the wishes of Parliament too often. Cromwell ended up leading the first and only British Republic for a period of time, ending with his death in 1658.
In 1660, King Charles II assumed the throne as the English decided that they couldn’t quite afford to do without a monarch.
Revolution and restoration have been themes in world history ever since.
Napoleon restored the monarchy (albeit as an emperor) after the French Revolution had guillotined a fairly high percentage of the royalists in the country.
George Washington in many ways was the first American monarch. He had a regal bearing, and while he turned down the crown after being offered it at the conclusion of the American Revolution, it was his for the taking.
America’s first truly revolutionary election was Andrew Jackson’s. The Age of Jackson was a movement of the masses to the polls. He was the first distinctly “Western” president, and he could barely read or write. But he hated New York bankers, the niceties of the cultured class and all of those elites. And the elites hated Andrew Jackson.
Jackson had a hell of a party during his first inauguration, and more than a few pieces of china were broken.
The themes of revolution and restoration have reverberated throughout American history. And sometimes they get conflated. Teddy Roosevelt, as a trust-buster, was a revolutionary figure. His cousin Franklin Roosevelt, too, started as a revolutionary, but he stayed so long, he became his own restoration.
Jack Kennedy was a revolutionary figure. He promised a new generation of leadership. Dick Nixon restored the sanity of the silent majority amid the revolutions of 1968.
Ronald Reagan restored American values after the Jimmy Carter revolution.
Bill Clinton smashed the preconceived notions of what it took to be president (he dodged the draft, for example), in his revolution against the Republican monarchists. George W. Bush restored his father’s name and Republicans atop the throne.
Barack Obama has been a revolutionary figure in more ways than one. He has governed from the left, he has changed all of the definitions of what it takes to become president, he has preached the language of the revolutionary (the rich need to pay more).
Mitt Romney has preached the language of restoration. His problem is partly that the establishment isn’t quite certain he is the man to assume the throne. But the bigger part of his problem is that the Tea Party movement is not about restoration. It is all about revolution. And they are aiming their sights both at President Obama and at the Republican establishment.
We are in an era of rapid and unsettling transition. This speeds up the process of revolution and restoration. The Republican Party can’t quite figure out if it is all about restoration or further revolution. And that will be one of its biggest challenges in replacing Barack Obama this November.