'His Brother Was Worse!'

Twelve days before the 2004 election, James Carville was feeling his oats. In a Beverly Hills living room, he told a cohort of Hollywood liberals they could begin savoring a happy ending to the movie "John Kerry Runs for President":

"If we can't win this damn election, with a Democratic Party more unified than ever before, with us having raised as much money as the Republicans, with 55 percent of the country believing [the country is] heading in the wrong direction, with our candidate having won all three debates and with our side being more passionate about the outcome than theirs--if we can't win this one, then we can't win [expletive deleted]."

Today Democrats have a gale filling their sails. They have even more intensity than they had two years ago; 69 percent of the electorate thinks the country is on the wrong track; the president's job approval is down to 29 percent (it is higher than 50 percent only in four contiguous states--Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska), and the Republican strategy for this November comes down to an old joke:

A pastor called to a new church arrives on the day of a funeral for a man he never knew. The new pastor asks if someone in the congregation would like to say afew words in praise of the deceased. After a long pause, from the back of the church a voice calls out: "His brother was even worse!"

Twelve years after the high-water mark of postwar conservatism, this is the Republican rallying cry: Democrats would be even worse than we are! Even worse about spending, about government intrusiveness, etc.

The Republicans' implosion began in March 2005 with their Terri Schiavo derangement, the attempt to intrude federal courts into a state's jurisdiction and a family's tragedy. Fourteen months later, after Katrina, Harriet Miers and the "Bridge to Nowhere," Republicans completed their immolation by briefly borrowing an idea from the epitome of failure, the Carter presidency. They flirted with the idea of a $100 rebate to almost everyone--even people without cars--as balm for the sting of annoying gasoline prices. Remember President Carter's 1977 idea to stimulate the economy with a $50 rebate? Actually, the $100 idea was even more risible: 100 of today's dollars are equal to 30 dollars in 1977.

Five days after the 2004 election, Karl Rove, appearing on "Meet the Press," was feeling his oats. He noted that George W. Bush was the first president since FDR to win a second term while increasing his party's strength in both the House and Senate, and the first president since 1988 to receive a majority of the popular vote--and a higher percentage of that vote than any Democratic president since 1964. Asked about having said that his goal was to create a permanent Republican majority, Rove replied:

"There are no permanent majorities in American politics. They last for about 20 or 30 or 40 or, in the case of the Roosevelt coalition, 50 or 60 years and then they disappear. But would I like to see the Republican Party be the dominant party for whatever time history gives it the chance to be? You bet."

But "history" neither giveth nor taketh away. What has taken away the Republicans' brio are Republicans' choices that have confused their voters--choices about Iraq and spending. Republicans stand convicted of not meaning what they say about limited government, and Democrats are suspected of not saying what they mean to do if put in charge of Congress. The most notable Democratic vow concerning how they would use power was last week's promise, emanating from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, that they would not impeach the president.

Even if, as remains unlikely, Democrats gain six seats and control of the Senate, they will not have 60 seats, without which nothing important happens. Today the Senate includes 53 former members of the House, a record high. Many of them are irritable about the Senate's culture. The House can act with as much dispatch as its leaders desire. But when the Senate seems to be not working, it is working as the Founders intended. Furthermore, the average age of the senators is above 60, a record high. So the Senate has two cohorts--impatient newcomers and a gerontocracy impatient with impatience.

Because the Senate in 2007 will remain an impediment to legislating, either house, under Democratic control, will turn to investigating the administration. So the nation, already dismayed by Washington, may have an election that changes con-trol of neither house of Congress, or that changes control of one or both without really changing much except the temper of the town, making it even uglier.

Finally, if the Democrats, with all that they think they have going for them this year, fail to capture either house, they may become unhinged, as the Republicans did after they failed to defeat Truman in 1948. Republicans then succumbed to McCarthyism and other fevers, from which they were rescued by Dwight Eisenhower. Who would be the Democrats' Ike? Senator Clinton? Not likely.