Can Democrats prosper in the absence of George W. Bush?
His presidency led to a blossoming of political creativity on the center-left not seen since the 1930s. The whole effort was summarized nicely by the party's slogan in 2006, "A New Direction for America." Compared with Bush, any alternative destination seemed appealing. And by becoming the apotheosis of the new, Barack Obama emerged as the most attractive guide to this unknown promised land.
The consequence is that Democrats must govern in one of the most difficult periods in American history while managing a sprawling coalition and working though a political structure near the point of breakdown - largely because of the dysfunctional and undemocratic U.S. Senate.
Given the scope of the problems, Democrats could argue they are doing pretty well. It's no small thing to save the economy from collapse and wind down two wars.
But politically, the Democrats are in trouble. They are at each other's throats over health-care legislation that should be seen as one of the party's greatest triumphs. They are being held hostage by narcissists and narrow slivers of their coalition.
Moderates complain that the party has gone too far left. Progressives ask what's left wing about shoring up banks and protecting drug companies. Rural-state centrists insist on fiscal discipline - as long as it doesn't affect farmers and small-town hospitals. Progressives ask why debt is the priority when more needs to be done to relieve unemployment.
This is a recipe for political catastrophe. An increasingly bitter and negative Republican Party may not be able to win the midterm elections, but Democrats can lose them.
Their fractiousness is dispiriting supporters, which set off this warning bell in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll: For the first time in his presidency, more Americans strongly disapprove of Obama's performance in office (33 percent) than strongly approve (31 percent). In June, strong approvers of Obama outnumbered strong disapprovers by 36 percent to 22 percent. Ardor and energy are switching sides.
Democrats must do one thing fast: Agree on a health bill and start selling it with enthusiasm and conviction. Their own turmoil and backstabbing are making what is a good plan look like a failure while persuading independents that they are a feuding gang rather than a governing party.
They have to focus in 2010 on job creation and long-term economic mobility while explaining how aggressive measures to boost the economy go hand in hand with eventual deficit reduction.
Congressional moderates must understand that their fate is linked with the party's ability to govern, and grassroots progressives have to be less on a hair-trigger to shout betrayal. (I wish I knew what to do about Joe Lieberman.)
Obama has not appreciated until recently how closely he has been tied to Wall Street and the banks. He has been too reluctant to underscore how much of Washington's dysfunction has been pushed to new levels by the GOP's grinding the Senate to a halt. He has tried to make clear the size of the mess he inherited, but has not sold the country on the extent to which he has begun to clean it up.
Americans may not be sold on anything until unemployment starts dropping. Even then, Democrats will have a tough time making the sale if the process that produced the health-care bill comes to define the image of how they govern the country. Democrats have every right to blame Bush for the fix we're in. They can't blame him for the problems they're creating for themselves.