Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Politicians under stress tend to confirm, not refute, the criticisms that got them into trouble in the first place. Vacillating politicians vacillate. Thin-skinned politicians explode.

Democrats are now feeling enormous political stress. Independents have fled the Obama coalition, largely out of concern about debt, deficits and spending. Intensity is all on the Republican and conservative side. A recent Gallup poll found that the percentage of Republican voters who say they are "very enthusiastic" to vote in 2010 is twice the percentage of Democrats who say the same (44 percent to 22 percent). President Obama's job approval now flirts with 40 percent, with solid majorities disapproving his handing of the economy, deficits and health care.

On this trajectory, Democrats see the House slipping away, their Senate majority threatened, and a president now too divisive to profitably appear in many districts.

So how have national Democrats decided to respond? With a series of tactics that make their worst problems worse.

First is the depiction of Republicans as the "party of no," populated by obstructionists blocking needed measures to create jobs and improve the economy. Vice President Joe Biden recently applied this critique to the stimulus package. "There's a lot of people at the time argued it was too small," he said. If it had not been for Republican opposition, "I think it would have been bigger." No doubt it would have been.

This is Biden's response to American economic anxiety: If Democrats had even greater control in Washington -- even larger influence than holding the presidency and both houses of Congress -- they would have spent more than $862 billion on the stimulus. Rather than allying the fiscal concerns of independents, Biden is actively feeding these fears -- thereby making the case for the moderating effects of divided government.

With health reform and massive spending, Democrats have picked a fight on the size and role of government. The Republican response, at this point, consists mainly of yelling "Stop!" In a presidential race -- which demands a positive domestic agenda -- this would not be sufficient. In a midterm referendum on the performance of the president and Congress, it seems like more than enough.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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