If the Democrats are doomed in November, why is it Republicans who are freaking out?
Before and after health care reform became law late last month, it was widely predicted that Democrats would pay dearly for the bill's supposed extremism. "They put red bandanas on their head, took a drink of sake, and went out on what I believe will be a kamikaze mission,"said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., on March 22. Not all Democrats disagreed. As recently as April 16, Democratic pollsters Douglas Schoen and Patrick H. Caddell confidently pronounced health reform "an incontrovertible disaster" leaving Republicans "ripe to pick up major gains in both chambers this November." And just last week conservatives turned cartwheels when a poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found the public's trust in government to be at its lowest point in half a century.
The dire predictions aren't entirely off-base. It is virtually guaranteed that Democrats will lose congressional seats in November, because whichever party controls the White House almost always experiences at least some attrition in midterm elections. While there are signs the economy has started to recover, unemployment will likely exceed 9 percent through the end of the year, further diminishing Democratic prospects. And although implementation of health care reform will likely shrink its opposition, the major provisions don't take effect until 2014—one year after a significant payroll-tax increase for families earning more than $250,000.
But if prospects were as bad for Democrats as many insist, one would expect today's dominant political story to be that Democrats are panicking. In fact, the dominant political story is that Republicans are panicking.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., calls a timeout. The Senate's most bipartisan conservative is moving to break off negotiations with Democrats on immigration and climate change. He says it's because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., played politics with the immigration issue. But it seems at least as likely that Graham feels the heat from wingnut constituents back home.
Florida Gov.Charlie Crist, almost chosen in 2008 to be the vice-presidential nominee, quits the GOP and runs as an independent. There's little doubt he's doing this not out of conviction but because he would lose the primary to a Tea Party-backed conservative.
The leading GOP candidate for president loses his conservative base. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is trying desperately to convince economic conservatives that his signature health care reform was dramatically different from Obamacare, but they aren't buying it. That's a serious problem for a candidate whose chief constituency in the 2008 race was … economic conservatives.
The most recent GOP presidential nominee may lose his Senate re-election race. Granted, the conservative bona fides of Arizona Sen. John McCain were in the past called into question by his support for campaign finance reform, his opposition to President George W. Bush's first tax cut, and positions on various other issues. He may even have flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a Democrat. But in the 2008 race McCain re-defined himself as a conservative, and now he no longer will cop even to being a maverick. Until recently there seemed a real chance McCain would lose to challenger J.D. Hayworth in the August primary. With that possibility now diminishing, McCain must now worry whether he can win the general. A recent matchup had McCain winning only 46 percent of the vote against Tucson Vice Mayor Rodney Glassman. (Glassman got 24 percent, with 30 percent undecided.)
The most recent GOP vice-presidential nominee is a tabloid joke. Sarah Palin quit the Alaska governorship with 18 months left to go in her first term. That indicates either that she's abandoned whatever ambition to run for president she may have had or that whatever ambition she maintains is profoundly unrealistic. Evidence is mounting that her chief career interest is to cash in on her fame.
Republican governors are romanticizing the Confederacy. Virginia's Robert McDonnell backed down. Mississippi's Haley Barbour said there was no need to. Guess which one wants the party of Lincoln's presidential nomination?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Lindsey Graham by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.