Democrats regained congressional control in November largely by being the only alternative to the unpopular party. Could a similar phenomenon operate in reverse in 2008 with the GOP recapturing Congress and retaining the presidency mostly by default?
Surely most political commentators would agree that Democrats didn't inspire voter enthusiasm in November. They didn't even really try to, because they were banking on the president's and his party's unpopularity. They also knew that if they were to offer something substantive on Iraq, it might drag them down, too. So they relied solely on trashing the president and his policies. But circumstances are working against them enjoying this luxury much longer.
In the first place, Democrats now control Congress, so even though Republicans still have the White House, it will be harder for Democrats to escape scrutiny. But more importantly, we're already in the season of presidential fever, and this is a dangerous season for Democrats with national aspirations.
For though the Iraq war is currently a noose around the neck of the GOP, America remains a center-right nation that will still be in the thick of the war on terror in 2008 and beyond, regardless of what happens in Iraq. Democratic presidential aspirants will have to answer in 2008 for the things they say now to ingratiate themselves to their implacable antiwar base.
But what we're seeing, so far, is that the Democrats' taste of power is emboldening them to greater heights of stridency against the war and the president's successful economic policies. It is leading them to demand total adherence to their dogmatic views and catastrophic remedies for global warming when the science in support of their dogma is increasingly dubious. They are mistaking their default victory in November as affirmation of an agenda they never bothered to offer.
Their hubris aside, it's doubtful their presidential candidates could resist the demands of their increasingly liberal core constituencies. These groups control the money and the influence and will not be ignored.
For a while it seemed that Hillary could straddle the fence, puffing up her machismo by feigning non-dovish-extremism on Iraq without alienating a base that would trust that her heart still belonged to Saul Alinsky-type leftist radicals. But the base has obviously lost confidence that Hillary's appetite for power won't overcome her allegiance to the cause.
They've communicated this distrust to Hillary so consistently now that she's been forced to lurch back in their direction with the result that if anyone were to juxtapose her varying positions on Iraq, she'd be exposed as a sociopathic opportunist.
Unfortunately for Hillary, she has a couple of potentially formidable challengers who just might do the Republicans' work for them in highlighting her flagrant inconsistencies. How she handles this obstacle will be of critical importance for her viability in the general election.
Under different circumstances Hillary might be able to get away with mildly snubbing the base by maintaining a more centrist position on the war and preserving her wider appeal for 2008. But she's bound to be afraid of such a risky gambit, given the current unpopularity of the war with the general electorate. The ultimate irony might be unfolding: the very unpopularity of the war that Democrats have been promoting could be the undoing of their most promising candidate.
Hillary is acutely aware of her dilemma and has apparently decided to pull out all the stops for now to regain favor with the base. In that spirit she has made some patently ridiculous statements of late, like her promise to end the war presto chango if it hasn't ended by her crowning in January 2008 and her threat to confiscate and redistribute oil company profits.
Similarly, contenders Obama and Edwards will continue to compete with Hillary for the distinction of being the most liberal in the primary without being unelectable in the general.
With all of this occurring Republicans just might be able to squeak back into congressional power and hold on the presidency despite their irrepressible inclination to alienate their own base and their failure so far to produce a presidential candidate without major electoral disabilities.
If Mitt Romney is unable to convince conservatives he's the real deal and if some other truly conservative dark horse doesn't surprise us and catch fire pretty soon, conservatives, in November 2008, will be faced with a choice between a dovish social liberal and a hawkish social liberal.
Or, if they're lucky, the choice will be between a dovish social liberal and a hawk who, while not socially conservative, will promise to honor the Constitution by appointing originalist judges.
Like it or not, it appears we're living in an era of the politically uninspiring.