WASHINGTON -- In June 2008, before the financial implosions that would come a few months later, I asked two smart financiers who happened to be Republicans about the future of the seemingly shaky American economy.
Defying the moment's conventional predictions that we would somehow muddle through, one of them offered a dire and uncannily accurate forecast. He explained why banks would blow up, investments would crash and the federal government would have to spend "at least $300 billion" to bail out financial institutions.
The other financial expert listened closely, took a sip from his drink, and smiled. "This," he said, "would seem like an excellent time for the Democrats to take power."
It wasn't that he liked the Democrats' policies. He just wanted the other side in charge when things came tumbling down. I doubt that my friend is as surprised as others are over the trouble Democrats face in Tuesday's Massachusetts Senate race that forced President Obama to Boston on Sunday for a last-minute campaign rescue mission.
I have thought often of that exchange while watching Obama and the Democrats struggle with the country's understandably cantankerous mood.
Underlying so much of the self-assured political analysis pouring forth in our multimedia world over the Massachusetts showdown is a debate over the reasons for the decline of Obama's popularity from the heights of last spring.
Conservatives blame it on "liberalism"--big government, big deficits, an overly ambitious health care plan, a stimulus that spent too much and other supposedly left-leaning sins of the Obama regime.
In explaining Scott Brown's strong run for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, conservatives highlight the Republican's strength among independent voters who are said to be alarmed over the ambition and reach of Obamaism.
Obama sympathizers counter that the president's approval ratings are quite healthy in light of an unemployment rate that's gone over 10 percent and a nearly unprecedented destruction of personal wealth.
The conservatives' focus on ideology, they say, is an opportunistic way of distracting attention from the mistakes of the Bush years and the role conservative policies played in bringing us to this point. To cite ideology rather than the economy in explaining the poll numbers is like analyzing the causes of Civil War without any reference to slavery or the rise of the New Deal without mention of the Great Depression.
It's not surprising that I lean toward the second set of explanations, and I wish that my conservative friends would be as honest as the Republican investor was in acknowledging that presiding over bad times always hurts the party stuck with the job.
But the success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. The president has had to "own" the economic catastrophe much earlier than he should have. The vast majority of Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much money and that things have not turned around as fast as they hoped.
It's also striking that most conservatives, through a method that might be called the audacity of audacity, have acted as if absolutely nothing went wrong with their economic theories. They speak and act as if they had nothing to do with the large deficits they now bemoan and say we will all be saved if only we return to the very policies that should already be discredited.
The few exceptions to this rule--Bruce Bartlett and Richard Posner, the authors of two bravely dissident books, come to mind--find themselves excommunicated from the conservative movement.
Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right's narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.
The president's supporters comfort themselves that Obama's numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan's numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.
Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper's method to offer their own critique of the very conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics, as we are learning in Massachusetts, than it ought to be.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group