Is it Time for Democrats to Start Panicking?

They can't stop the war or override the president's veto on S-CHIP. Harry Reid is less popular in his home state of Nevada than the president is in the country, and, if you listen to the pollsters and the pundits, the Democrats are about to choose one of the most divisive political figures in the Republic’s history to be their 2008 presidential nominee.

Which begs the question: When should Democrats begin to panic?

The answer is "not yet." But the truth is that unless they can re-establish some of their 2006 momentum, Democrats may find themselves going into the next election tagged as the party that couldn't stop Bush when given a chance, or as the party that did not try hard enough.

Democrats should be particularly concerned by the storyline the White House is peddling this week, which claims, in effect, that the president has his “mojo” back and that the Congress is ineffective. After outlining a long list of things he thinks the Congress should be working on, the president on Tuesday declared, "It's little time left in the year, and Congress has little to show for all the time that has gone by."

And here is Mort Kondracke writing this week in Roll Call:

"From Iraq to S-CHIP to the budget, energy policy, trade, terrorist surveillance, the mortgage crisis and even prescription drug costs and student test scores, top Bush aides say that events are turning in his direction -- and that they are trying to get the word out more effectively."

Essentially, every near-miss the president has had in his confrontation with Hill Democrats is being advanced as evidence that he's still got it. Add to that the news that after 12 solid years in control, the GOP House leadership has unveiled plans to run against the 10-month Democratic "status quo" in Washington.

The list of what Democrats have not been able to do is not as long as some would have you believe, but it includes the one issue that matters: Iraq. The president's strength on the war issue seems undiminished, despite the voters' forceful rebuke last November.

Democrats may not have grasped early enough just how much responsibility for ending the war would shift to them once they were back in control of the Congress. The fundamental truth remains unchanged: that there was little more they could have done given their slim majority.

But they may have played to the "Mr. Bush's war" theme a little too long without sufficiently recasting the expectations of those who thought a Democratic win last November meant a beginning of an end to the war. That has meant a sharp decline in the popularity of Congress, largely due to the disaffection of Democratic and other anti-war voters who are frustrated that Bush's disastrous march in Iraq remains unstoppable.

The good news for Democrats is that Republicans' base voters are even more disaffected than their own. Democrats are pissed at their leaders; Republicans are dejected by theirs. For the base, anger is a greater motivator than depression.

The slow progress on the Hill has taken its toll. The excitement of control has begun to wane, and Democrats understand the need for some renewed momentum. They are now trying to establish that they have, and are continuing to, put up a good fight. And they will try to convince the American people that what they need in 2008 is not just a new president, but more anti-war votes in Congress, especially the Senate, to be successful.

This week they were thankful for the special-election win in the 5th District of Massachusetts. Some pundits had predicted that Republican Tom Ognowski might upset Niki Tsongas in the solidly Democratic district, portending ill for Democrats next year. In fact even after Tsongas's six-point victory -- 51 percent to 45 percent -- some on the right saw it as a bad omen for Democrats.

"This is not the victory Republicans wistfully hoped for," writes Michael Barone, my former U.S. News and World Report colleague, "but it was something like Democrat Paul Hackett's near upset in the special election in August 2005 in Ohio's heavily Republican Second District." Not so, if only because Democrats don't have enough time or talent to screw up the way the Ohio GOP did in the run-up to the 2006 election.

Democrats saw the Tsongas win as a momentum boost, and they are looking for another boost in a couple of weeks in Kentucky, one of only three states holding gubernatorial elections this year (and the only one the Democrats stand a chance of winning). They hope that a mix of antipathy about Iraq, GOP corruption, and rising unease about the economy will give them a chance to win the governor's race next month and lay the groundwork that will turn the Bluegrass State blue in 2008.

The governor's race looks like a done deal. The risk, of course, is that rerunning the 2006 campaign may not work as well in 2008. Still, it's not time to panic yet.