The dark clouds over Republican electoral prospects were parted for a time this week by the antics of a familiar clown. Many politicians say stupid things. But only John Kerry could convert an embarrassing one-day story into a three-day fire storm.
Amusing as it has been to watch Democratic candidates treat Mr. Kerry as if he has bubonic plague, I don't think his crack about the intelligence of U.S. soldiers and his belated, pseudo-apology for it will have much impact on this election's dynamics.
People are tired of President Bush and the Republicans. Historically, voters get restive for change in the sixth year of a presidential term. The six-year itch is magnified this year by concern about the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with the performance of Congress.
Speaking in San Francisco Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton said Democrats were on the verge of taking control of Congress because Republicans have abandoned their core principles.
"The reason we are here at this moment is that they do not represent faithfully the Republicans and the more conservative independents in the country," Mr. Clinton said.
Mr. Clinton says many things which are not true, but this was right on. The last three Republican-controlled congresses have been the biggest spenders in history. Fiscal conservatives are dismayed not just by the amounts Republicans have been spending, but by the manner in which it is being spent. Earmarks a soft form of corruption have exploded under the GOP.
And where soft corruption is not enough, GOP lawmakers like Randy Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio showed there is plenty of the traditional kind of corruption, too.
Deservedly on the defensive, the basic GOP message has been: "We may be pretty bad, but the Democrats are even worse."
If Republicans have betrayed their principles, it's hard to find among Democrats principles to betray. It's clear they want power, but most are unclear what they'd do with it if they got it. The Democratic campaign theme this year has been to declare: "I hate President Bush and (insert name of GOP opponent here) doesn't."
A campaign run on such themes is unlikely to be edifying, and the 2006 campaign has been the ugliest in my lifetime.
Some of the Republicans likely to lose Tuesday like Rep. Don Sherwood in Pennsylvania's 10th district deserve to. But when the public gets in a "throw the bums out" mood, some who get thrown out aren't bums.
On July 26, 1945, less than two months after Germany's surrender, a British electorate weary of the demands of greatness replaced Winston Churchill as prime minister with Clement Attlee, and Britain's swift decline as a world power began.
The three GOP senators thought to be in the deepest kimchee are Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. The republic would miss Mr. DeWine only a little, and Mr. Chafee not at all.
Rick Santorum is another story. Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, among others, has attested to his effectiveness as a senator. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, "I could fill this column, if not this entire page, with a list of ideas, proposals and laws Mr. Santorum has poured out in the last dozen years."
On the stump, Mr. Santorum has been sounding Churchillian. If President Bush spoke as clearly and forcefully about the threat we face and how we should deal with it, he'd be more popular, and we'd be safer. "The commanding grasp shown by Sen. Santorum of the most important issues of our day stands in stark contrast to the haplessness of his opponent," wrote Frank Gaffney, a former assistant secretary of defense.
Mr. Santorum has trounced state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. who has his father's name but not his intellectual heft in their debates.
Mr. Kerry's clumsy slam of our troops and Bob Casey's unwillingness to condemn it may remind voters how dangerous it is to have Democrats in power during time of war. Pennsylvanians still may choose the wheat over the chaff. But the opinion polls look daunting.
If the cipher beats the senator, I hope Rick Santorum will seek a more difficult job. Currently, no conservative is planning to seek the GOP nomination for president, certainly none with Mr. Santorum's rhetorical skills or record of accomplishment.
Yeah, he'd be a loser. The last Republican candidate for the Senate to so articulately address the dangers confronting our nation also lost. But two years later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States.