WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party is ascendant, emboldened -- and on the verge of debilitating mistakes.
There is little doubt about Republican ascendance. In June 2008, Democrats enjoyed a nearly 20-point lead in the generic congressional ballot; today they are behind. Approval for President Obama among independents has fallen below 40 percent for the first time in his presidency. Vice President Biden recently protested that he saw no "grand debacle" coming in November for Democrats, thereby giving a name to Democratic fears. A debacle seems precisely what's in store.
But the problem with political waves is that they generate misleading momentum and exaggerated ideological confidence. Parties tend to interpret shapeless public discontent as the endorsement of their fondest ambitions. Obama mistook his election as a mandate for the pent-up liberalism of his party. Some Republican activists are intent on a similar but worse mistake.
The Republican wave carries along a group that strikes a faux revolutionary pose. "Our Founding Fathers," says Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, "they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact, Thomas Jefferson said it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that's not where we're going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies."
Angle has managed to embrace the one Founding Father with a disturbing tolerance for the political violence of the French Revolution. "Rather than it should have failed," enthused Jefferson, "I would have seen half the earth desolated." Hardly a conservative model.
But mainstream conservatives have been strangely disoriented by tea party excess, unable to distinguish the injudicious from the outrageous. Some rose to Angle's defense or attacked her critics. Just to be clear: A Republican Senate candidate has identified the United States Congress with tyranny and contemplated the recourse to political violence. This is disqualifying for public office. It lacks, of course, the seriousness of genuine sedition. It is the conservative equivalent of the Che Guevara T-shirt -- a fashion, a gesture, a toying with ideas the wearer only dimly comprehends. The rhetoric of "Second Amendment remedies" is a light-weight Lexington, a cut-rate Concord. It is so far from the moral weightiness of the Founders that it mocks their memory.