Barring an economic meltdown, the old Democratic dream of rebuilding the Rooseveltian coalition on the ruins of another Hooverian presidency will fail to materialize. Because ever since the ideologues took control of the Democratic Party in the '60s, it hasn't been able to re-establish sustained contact with the American heartland. And the more fired-up its zealots, the poorer the candidates they support do in November. Call it the McGovern Effect.
The very thought of Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, as speaker of the House will be enough to energize the right and concern the center, and I'd guess those two categories account for about 80 percent of the American electorate.
Even when leading Democrats talk about God, express doubts about the morality of abortion, say they're tough enough to win the war on terror, promise to repeal the estate/death tax and generally seek to get in touch with middle America again, they sound phony, as if they're just reciting phrases they've carefully practiced.
There's no way to fabricate authenticity; people can tell the real thing. And the unreal. Until the Harry Truman/Scoop Jackson/Joe Lieberman kind of Democrat stages a comeback, the party will continue to founder. Republican failures alone do not translate into Democratic appeal.
Republicans have their own problems, and they're even more evident. How do you defend the necessity of a long, cruel twilight war with all its sacrifices and uncertainties? (That challenge hasn't changed much since the Cold War.) How do you talk economic sense when nostrums are so much easier to sell? How do you explain that the oil companies/neoconservatives/Halliburton/the rich aren't responsible for all the troubles in the world?
What Richard Hofstadter forever defined as the Paranoid Style in American Politics continues to sell - and neither party is above resorting to it.
In this kind of election year, the instinctive demagogue has it all over the principled leader. The demagogue doesn't have to think; he just reflects whatever fear or anger is most prevalent at the time.
It's only the leader with a conscience who may be caught agonizing over a hot issue, torn between playing up to the crowd or leveling with it . . . until he finally does neither to any great effect. (Remember Adlai Stevenson?)
It won't be who wins or loses in November that fascinates some of us, but the challenge that confronts every politician: How much of his integrity is he willing to sacrifice in order to win? How much is integrity worth, anyway? Isn't it possible to be over-scrupulous, and so let the unscrupulous win?
Stick around. These midterm elections are going to be a great show and, at their best, a morality play.