Republicans try to take comfort from the fact that 61 Democratic members of Congress represent districts that President Bush carried in 2004. But 37 of those won with at least 55 percent of the vote. Furthermore, 14 Republican representatives won in 2006 by a single percentage point, or less.
Granted, in the last 150 years, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter (barely) are the only Democrats to achieve 50 percent of the popular vote. And this year Democrats might still give Republicans the gift of Hillary Clinton, who probably has a popular vote ceiling of 52 percent. A subliminal -- too much so -- subtext of Obama's message is that Clinton cannot receive the big mandate required for big changes: Enactment of Social Security in 1935 followed Franklin Roosevelt's 57.4 percent victory in 1932, and in 1965 Medicare came after Lyndon Johnson's 61 percent victory over Barry Goldwater.
But even if Democrats nominate Clinton, Republicans must remember that Bush's 2.4 point margin of victory in 2004 was unimpressive: In the 12 previous re-elections of presidents, the average margin of victory was 12.9 points. Bush's 50.7 percent of the vote in 2004 was the third-smallest for a re-elected president (Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton won 49.2 percent in 1916 and 1996 respectively). Kerry's 48.3 percent was the largest ever against a president being re-elected. (In the 12 previous re-elections, no losing candidate received more than 46.1 percent; nine of the losers received less than 45 percent.)
Tuesday's Republican primary is in one of the nation's worst-governed states. Under a Democratic governor, Michigan has been taxed into a one-state recession. Native son Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate who best understands how wealth is created, might revive his campaign by asking: Who do you want to be president in 2010 when the Bush tax cuts, which McCain opposed, expire? Can automakers endure more regulations such as the fuel efficiency mandates that climate-fixers such as McCain favor? Do you want a president (Mike Huckabee, proponent of a national sales tax of at least 30 percent) pledged to radically increase the proportion of federal taxation paid by the middle class?
Republicans should try to choose the next president. They cannot avoid choosing how their party will define itself, even if by a loss beneath a worthy banner.