Considering how much attention mass media has spent on electoral politics it has missed the elephant in the room (pardon the pun): The extreme peril of the Republican Party. Almost all coverage is now on the Democratic primary, and the least likely (and most dramatic) scenarios are getting the most focus. But here is what seems most likely: The candidates fight it out, a winner emerges in the next month or so and emotions peak. Everyone takes the summer off, spends some time at the beach with a good book, and returns at the end of August tanned, rested and ready to crank up an energetic election campaign. Meanwhile, each contested state gets two industrial strength Democratic voter registration machines rolling through, extends the Democratic monopoly of the news cycle and sharpens the campaigning skills of the eventual nominee.
For Republicans, that is the bad news. The worse news is that the math this time around is horrible, and the early indications are dismal. They have 29 House members retiring this year, and it didn't get that high by accident. Losing as an incumbent has to be one of the worst events for a politician; it is a rejection and a humiliation - it is the voters saying "we tried you out and found you wanting." It also usually comes with about a ten year setback. You don't just bounce to some more prestigious office, you either take some time off or seek refuge in an appointed position. Then you slowly begin your rehabilitation. Many Republicans think now is a good time to take a powder, and by doing so they could be viable next time. It looks similarly bad (annoying trendy word for this election: optics) in the Senate. Republicans are defending 23 seats to the Democrats' 12; even if the GOP was wildly popular it would simply have to cover more territory.
I've saved the worst for last. The preceding can be seen as nothing more than the vagaries of the horse race, the calendar and random chance. Fortunes wax and wane, and sometimes parties succeed just because. It is like the stock market, which moves sometimes in response to specific data and sometimes for reasons that are too complex to understand. (I will have unyielding admiration for the first newscaster who has the honesty and courage to say "Stocks closed higher today. God alone knows why.") Republicans can talk their way out of a situation like that. It is their great misfortune that it is also accompanied by the total collapse of their principles.
Republicans held all the levers of power in Washington for six years. They turned budget surpluses into huge deficits, which put pressure on the dollar. The financial industry's house of cards got blown down and the Federal Reserve cut rates to head off a recession. That put even more pressure on the dollar. Its value sank against other currencies, and investors have taken refuge in commodities, driving those prices up. Republicans' aggressive, swaggering foreign policy has shot uncertainty through the market, driving (dollar denominated) oil to record highs. Simply put, their policies have put us in a position where we can't deficit spend, can't lower prices, can't cut rates and can't do much to restore value to our currency. Even simpler, every time you fill up your tank or buy a loaf of bread you pay the Bush Tax.
Tom Delay was described admiringly as "The Hammer" for his ability to get Republicans to approve these policies. It was a fun party while it lasted but the bill has come due. We have structural problems that won't go away easily or quickly, and voters have reasonably concluded which party bears the most blame. Even after they lost Congress last year they marched in lockstep behind the President as he continued a massively unpopular war. I have been very critical of the Democrats at times for not standing up to bullying from the White House, but the GOP has been far worse. They have pledged fealty to leaders dedicated to profligacy, incompetence and secrecy. They have unstintingly supported the administration's grotesque streak of sadism (see this week's illustration (via)), and declared themselves to be Republican before American. None of these issues will be eclipsed by manufactured talking points or trivial narratives. The effects of their governance are plainly and painfully before the country's eyes on (literally) a daily basis, and that is not going away before November. A handful of conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan recognized the new direction and forcefully rejected it (some recent examples), and they will be the intellectual inheritors when the time comes to rebuild. The party is in the process of self-immolation, and those who stepped away in disgust have no obligation to commit Sati.