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Gwen’s Take: The Danger of the Sweeping Conclusion

Breaking news: Herman Cain has endorsed Mitt Romney.

If that’s news to you, it’s because it happened four years ago. Thanks to Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic for the reminder that everything old is new again.

Cain, who emerged this week as the latest alternative to a Romney nomination, had only good things to say about his competitor in a February 2008 syndicated column. Romney, he wrote, would “focus on the right problems.”

“Romney has done that as a chief executive officer in business, as a governor and as head of the U.S. Olympics,” Cain wrote, “while balancing political consequences, but not compromising fundamental principles of the founding of this country or free-market economics.”

Romney at the time was battling charges of being a flip-flopper who was insufficiently committed to the conservative cause. His chief opponent at the time was John McCain, who went on to win the GOP nomination.

While conceding that the Republican field that year lacked “an obvious great leader,” Cain generously concluded that Romney was his best hope for a good president “who could turn out to be great.”

It is not all that shocking that politicians shift allegiances when opportunity presents itself. Joe Biden ran in the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama, and is now the president’s chief cheerleader.

But it does tell you something about the state of a campaign when allegiances keep shifting so dramatically.

Think about it. Michele Bachmann was beloved in Iowa in August. Rick Perry claimed the top of the polls in September. And now, Cain is the flavor of the month, or — as he is fond of calling himself — Haagen-Dazs black walnut ice cream.

This volatility speaks more to the times we live in than to the candidates. Unhappy, economically stressed Americans are clearly casting about for something different. Bill Clinton benefited from this in 1992 when he ousted incumbent George H.W. Bush, and President Obama did the same thing when he grabbed the Democratic Party nomination — and the presidency — from a field of candidates who shone less brightly in 2008.

The president is clearly in trouble now. New national polls — Wall St. Journal/NBC, Time Magaine, and Reuters/Ipsos — out this week show three-fourths of Americans emphatically believe the country is on the wrong track. And although congressional Republicans still beat the President in the unpopularity contest, it’s not by much.

And yet, there are a couple of counterintuitive details concealed in this week’s polls that remind us not to jump to conclusions. Occupy Wall Street, the ungainly protest movement that has now spread to city parks and plazas around the country, has earned the disdain of many conservatives, (“Take a shower and get a job,” Bill O’Reilly said), but not of most Americans. In two separate national polls this week, (Time and Reuters/Ipsos) people favored Occupy Wall Street by 2-to-1.

And even at what appears to be his political nadir, President Obama, according to Time, still beats all comers currently in the GOP field.

This is where conventional wisdom begins to collapse on itself. I got the chance to remind a couple of hundred college students of that when I visited Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., this week.

In spite of my protestations, questioner after questioner pressed me to peer into my non-existent crystal ball and predict the future — from the outcome of the presidential election to whether they would be able to get jobs to pay off their college loans.

“Is the past the best predictor of the future?” one professor wanted to know.

Surely not, I replied. If that were so, talk radio would rule the world, many of the first-generation college attendees I was addressing would not be in the room, and neither — as it happens — would I.

So just as surely as Herman Cain did not see this moment coming when he praised Mitt Romney nearly four years ago, it’s probably best to resist drawing any sweeping conclusion from this particularly unpredictable period of political history.

After all, by this time next month, Rick Santorum could be seizing his moment.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

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