Why are conservatives so depressed?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 17 2012 7:14 PM

What? Me Worry?

It’s too early to say who will win in November. But Republicans increasingly seem to think it won’t be them.

Why are Tea Partiers so sad?
Why are Tea Partiers so sad?

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The headline spoiled the column. James Pethokoukis, the chart-loving opinion-maker at the American Enterprise Institute, started with a warning: “How Republicans can win even if the economy keeps improving.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

How they can win? Had Pethokoukis lost the rights to his old pieces like “Obama Faces Worst-Case 2012 Scenario” and “If Obama Loses, It Will Be Because of This One Chart?” All of a sudden he was drawing up Republican battle plans based on contingencies, concluding that the party “just might” win if everything remains stagnant.

We’re living through the phony war of the Republican primary. Barack Obama’s buoyant poll numbers aren’t surprising anyone. The bigger worry is that Obama will get to preside over a solid economy. Republicans will re-enact the Bob Dole juggernaut of 1996. That’s not how this was supposed to work.

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Is the New Republican Pessimism widespread? That’s the tricky part: There are different flavors of pessimism. In this period, a lull that happens to feature good economic news and good Obama poll numbers, there are four identifiable sorts of pessimism. All of them were present at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the kickoff of the movement’s year. Not since 2008 had the event been so moody.

You can make the case that this is healthy, even desirable. “Obama has always been likely to win a second term, as most incumbents running for re-election do,” says Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of National Review who has been shouting about this for a year. “Conservatives were too optimistic about defeating him for much of 2011 and are now, I think, a bit too pessimistic.”

But the pessimism is there, and growing. To simplify matters, I will break it down into four strata, using the defense readiness condition that the Joint Chiefs of Staff use when they’re girding for war.

DEFCON 4: Everybody else is a pessimist. The cocktail chatter of the right this month has been the surprising resilience of Barack Obama, mixed with the unsurprising insistence of Republican voters to drag the race out to Berlin Alexandrplatz proportions. On InTrade—which doesn’t mean much, although the Romney campaign recently cited it as proof that it will beat Santorum—Obama’s chance of victory has floated up to 60 percent. “The Twitterization of politics,” says Commentary editor-in-chief John Podhoretz, “really is leading people to overreact.”

Podhoretz calls the New Pessimism a “classic fallacy,” easily explained. “A few good bits of news in February combined with GOP campaign nonsense will only be indicative of the results in November if those few good bits are followed by almost uninterrupted good economic news and if GOP campaign nonsense is never-ending. Neither is likely to be the case, and the crowing in certain liberal quarters is beyond foolish.”

Ed Morrissey, the chief blogger of HotAir.com—he’s endorsed Rick Santorum—gives the new pessimism little credence: It’s bitter pregame whining. “I'm hearing it from the people who were Rick Perry backers, Newt backers, Romney backers. I’m hearing pessimism of the type you get when your guy is not winning.”

DEFCON 3: The economy is improving, but we can overcome that. In his CPAC speech, the official kickoff of the conference, Sen. Jim DeMint acknowledged that the economy was getting better. The president—that fink!—was trying to grab “every piece of credit.” One week later, on the Michigan trail, Rick Santorum admitted that “there are good things happening all across the upper Midwest. That day, a Public Policy Polling survey showed President Obama leading any Republican in Michigan.