In assessing the severity of their current problems, Democrats have split into three distinct camps.
The first, the Loyal Obamaites, is made up of those most committed to President Obama, whether or not they're on his payroll. They stress that it is a long time until November 2010 and that their party's problems are primarily driven by the economy.
In their view, if the economy turns around over the next year, the president's fortunes and those of his party will improve. If the economy fails to improve, Democrats are pretty much screwed no matter what they do, the Loyalists continue. They maintain that tackling health care reform would be tough in any year, that candidate Obama promised to take on this challenge, and that he cannot back down. Some Democrats in this camp sound as if they would not mind if a dozen or so "Blue Dogs" lost next year, since on tough votes these moderate-to-conservative Democrats are not with the president and their party's House leadership anyway.
The second Democratic camp, the Purists, is chiefly composed of liberal activists and bloggers who see the current problems of the president and the party as the result of their being insufficiently liberal and of not sticking with their convictions. Purists see compromise as weakness or appeasement. And on health care they view anything short of a full-blown public option as a rejection of core Democratic principles. Oddly, universal coverage is not where they draw their line in the sand.
(Without weighing in on the validity of the liberal Purists' arguments, I would like the record to show that when conservatives made a similar argument -- that Republicans lost the 2006 and 2008 elections because they had veered away from conservative principles -- liberals laughed hysterically.)
Finally, there are the Skeptics, those Democrats who have concluded that this is not the cruise they signed up for. They worry that the problems facing Obama and their party's congressional leadership stem from something deeper than just the recession and that major strategic mistakes have been made. They can't see how this trajectory doesn't take their party to a bad place by November 2010. The Skeptics think that the rapid and unprecedented expansion of government -- under both Presidents Bush and Obama -- since last year's collapse of Lehman Brothers has gone too far and that costly health care proposals and cap-and-trade legislation are the straws breaking the camel's back.
If the economy fails to improve, Democrats are screwed no matter what they do, Obama's Loyalists say.
My own hunch is that the Skeptics are right that the Democrats' problems are bigger than the recession: Purple America is reacting to the growth of government with emotions ranging from dubiousness to outright hostility. So, the rebound for which almost everyone is praying won't necessarily fix the Democrats' problems.
To my way of thinking, many of the unprecedented actions that the Bush administration took in its last four months and that Obama took in his first few months as president were necessary to prevent a worldwide economic collapse. But that view is not widely shared and, thus, is of no solace to those alarmed by what they see as an ineffectual federal government expanding far beyond its competence.
What's more, the Loyalist notion that a dozen or so Blue Dogs might be expendable ignores the fact that a political environment that culls the Democratic herd in the House would very likely cost Democrats two to four senators, people whose votes are anything but expendable. Right now, seven Democratic Senate seats are vulnerable -- eight if GOP Rep. Michael Castle runs for the open seat in Delaware. It is not hard to envision Democrats going 0 for 5 among the vulnerable Republican-held open seats (in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Texas) and also not ousting any Republican incumbents. Another complicating factor for Democrats is that although Purple America holds some residual goodwill toward Obama, it has none for the Democratic Congress. When the institution is held in very low regard, plenty of well-liked and well-respected members of the majority party can simply get sucked down by the undertow. That happened to Republicans in 2006 and Democrats in 1994.
If the folks in the Obama White House are right that an economic turnaround will ease their political problems, that's great for them. But if the Democrats' problems are deeper and more fundamental, an economic recovery may not do the trick.
This article appears in the September 12, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.