One way of measuring the current miserable state of the Republican Party is to note that in the past 10 weeks, 55 years of Republican seniority in the House of Representatives were wiped out in three special elections.
Another gauge is that President Bush's 31 percent job approval score in this month's Washington Post poll is one of the lowest ever recorded for a chief executive.
However one measures it, this is surely the springtime of the GOP's discontent — a condition that led one Capitol Hill Republican to say, "Thank God we've still got almost six months until Election Day."
There's no telling what may happen between now and Nov. 4, but we know that John McCain is bucking a powerful head wind as he seeks the White House, while Barack Obama (or maybe Hillary Clinton) can enjoy at least a favoring breeze.
The situation is reminiscent of 1980. Six months before that election, it was evident that the country had grown weary of Jimmy Carter and his administration. What remained to be determined was the degree of comfort voters felt with Ronald Reagan as his successor. Would Reagan be seen as a B-movie actor and TV host, peddling eccentric and maybe dangerous notions, or as someone who had governed California successfully for eight years and could restore some sanity to a dysfunctional Washington? Once he delivered the necessary reassurances, the election was over.
The threshold for Obama now is no higher than what Reagan faced, but the mental exercise of placing Obama in the Oval Office requires more imagination than did moving Reagan from the silver screen to Pennsylvania Avenue. Obama's name, his face, his whole biography are precedent-setting. People need time to adjust. That's the reason it has been a mistake for him to all but avoid campaigning before skeptical voters in West Virginia and Kentucky. He has to earn the trust of voters like them — and he can't postpone that effort until the fall.
If he can make it past the credibility threshold, as Reagan did, a happy prospect awaits him. The voters clearly are ready to expand the Democratic numbers in the House and Senate.
The special-election victories in recent congressional races have toppled one Republican stronghold after another: Louisiana and Mississippi districts that had been Republican for 33 and 13 years, respectively; and former Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat in Illinois, which had gone Democratic only once in the last 50 years.
House Minority Leader John Boehner called the Mississippi race last week "a wake-up call" to all his embattled flock, but it seems more like a nightmare to many of them, portending large losses in November.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the unlucky campaign chairman for the House GOP, tried to put the best gloss on the situation, telling reporters that the avowedly conservative Democrats who won in Louisiana and Mississippi cannot be role models. Come November, with Obama likely to be atop the ticket and defining the Democratic message, "it will be harder for Democrats to run against their party," Cole said.
That remains to be seen. What's driving the vote now is not just opposition to Bush but a failing grade for Republicans. John Anzalone, a polling consultant for the winners in Louisiana and Mississippi, told me that those races — which featured Republican efforts to link the local Democratic candidates to Obama, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — showed "in hard times like these, the kitchen-table issues supersede the wedge issues" the GOP employed.
In the Post poll, Democrats led Republicans, 53 percent to 32 percent, as the party more trusted to cope with the main problems facing the country — twice as big as the GOP deficit in the summer of 2006, approaching the election that stripped Republicans of their congressional majorities.
Cole said that McCain, with his reputation for independence, can pull in votes not available to any other Republican. He's right. The same Post poll showed him trailing Obama by only seven percentage points and running far ahead of his party. But Lord, what a party.
David Broder's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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