Michael Gerson

A second tactic has been to identify Republicans with tea party extremism, the way Democrats once tried to identify Republicans with the religious right. As in that earlier case, there are extremes that deserve criticism. But about a quarter to a third of Americans identify in one way or another with the tea party movement. As William Galston of The Brookings Institution points out, Americans currently place themselves on the ideological spectrum closer to the tea party movement than they do to the Democratic Party, which they view as increasingly liberal.

Crude Democratic attacks on the tea party offend a broad group of voters. And the political intensity of conservative populists is only increased by elite disdain.

The third response to declining Democratic fortunes is to blame George W. Bush -- Obama's currently favored tactic. This week, Obama both ripped Bush for the economic problems of the country and tried to swipe credit for the successes of Bush's Iraq strategy (a strategy that Obama vigorously opposed).

The problem for Democrats is the contrast. Most would concede that former President Bush has been tremendously classy since leaving office, not only refusing to take the bait of criticism but agreeing to help with the American effort in Haiti when Obama asked. Of Obama's behavior, "classy" is not the adjective that comes to mind. Instead, Obama's self-serving criticism seems small, petty and shirking. In a nation increasingly skeptical of the president's leadership style, Obama is adding to those concerns.

Blaming Bush becomes less credible over time. After 18 months dominating every elected branch of government and fulfilling many of their legislative wishes, Democrats seemed surprised by the arrival of accountability. On the economy in particular, investors and job creators don't make decisions based on blame; they make decisions based on confidence in current policies. Right now, they see endless deficits and likely tax increases. And they have little reason for confidence.

It seldom works in politics to respond to a coming political wave with marginal changes in political tactics. Parties generally don't shift their policies or moderate their ideology until after they are well and truly walloped by voters. But Democrats under stress are actually complicating their own task -- further alienating independents, provoking conservative intensity, practicing an unattractive pettiness, and making a walloping in November more likely.

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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