Just for the fun of it, let’s try to use the language of commerce to try to get a bead on the present political situation without worrying too much about oversimplification. Right now “Obama Democrats” are competing with “Paul Ryan Republicans” for political market share. It looks, however, like both sides are pushing a tarnished brand.
The “Obama/Democrat” brand has lost most of its 2008 luster and isn’t apt to regain it any time soon with more dire economic news rolling in all the time. If you take your bearings from publicly available polling data, the “Ryan/Republican” brand never really was as lustrous as it looked last November. House Republicans and newly elected Republican governors started seeing their approval numbers crater almost as soon as they started making good on their campaign promises. The special election in NY-26 suggests that their declining popularity isn’t just an artifact of polling techniques.
You might expect under these circumstances that rational sellers would be trying their best to rebrand their product in light of revealed voter preferences. But at least so far, that’s not happening. Apparently, at least for the time being, both sides are confident that the weakness of the other side’s brand will pull them through in 2012. How else do you explain the fact that Obama Democrats still aren’t even bothering to offer a budget proposal that’s specific enough for CBO-scoring, and 40 out of 45 Senate Republicans still voted for the Ryan budget that passed the House in the wake of the shellacking their candidate just took in NY-26? Evidently, Democrats are betting that Republican Medicare reforms are sufficiently repellent to elect Democrats in 2012, and Republicans are betting Democratic fiscal irresponsibility is sufficiently appalling to elect Republicans.
I’m not the guy to tell you, at this point in time, which side is making the better wager. But the one thing I’m pretty sure of is that how things now look doesn’t say much about how they’ll look in Nov. 2012. By any objective measure, the odds on the bets Democrats and Republicans are laying down now are going to change appreciably between now and then as voters react to intervening developments and more information about their preferences becomes available. That will make it rational for the side that finds itself facing longer odds down the road to try its best to rebrand itself enough to regain its footing.
Which side is better positioned to do if it becomes necessary? I don’t think that’s a close call, although my answer cuts against conventional wisdom.
Granted, the Democratic base is well-trained, and still apparently disposed, to cut Obama the doctrinal slack he needs to navigate through political storms. The Republican base, on the other hand, is full of fire-breathing Tea Partiers that look ready to punish a Republican presidential candidate for the slightest suggestion of ideological impurity. That means that the average Republican 2012 candidate will surely be more conservative than the average Democratic candidate is liberal, perhaps too conservative to win over independent voters. But that doesn’t begin to imply that the Republican base won’t tolerate a tactical retreat from a spectacularly unpopular feature of the conservative agenda in order to beat Obama.
Any way you look at it, as the incumbent party, Democrats will have a lot harder time rebranding than Republicans. Democrats not only have a record of governance that will mean more to voters than any 2012 campaign pitch, but they already have the best-known figure in American politics at the top of the ticket, a guy not known for changing his mind in the face of Republican opposition or for being very forthcoming about it when he does. Thus far, Democrats haven't offered a specific budget because they're having a very hard time making the numbers add up without betraying some of Obama's solemn campaign promises (e.g., not to raise middle-class taxes, or not to make noticeable cuts in future Medicare benefits) or offending some core Democratic constituencies. Silence on budgetary issues is less a sign that Democrats are strong enough to stand pat than a symptom of how little political room they have to maneuver.
Compare that to the alleged constraint on Republican rebranding that has Democrats brimming with confidence, viz., the idea that a single vote by its House and Senate caucuses for Ryan’s budget, with its unpopular Medicare provisions, has backed the Republican Party into a political corner that it can't escape from before 2012. I don’t see it. For one thing, those votes aren’t all that hard to explain away. (“We Republicans voted for the Ryan budget not because we supported every one of its provisions, but because somebody had to make the first move to restore fiscal sanity to the federal government and the Democrats were never going to make it. If you have better ideas, let's hear them them.”)
In any case, the budgetary proposal that Republicans take into the 2012 election will be the one devised by the Republican presidential nominee which (unless the nominee ends up being someone like Michele Bachmann or Ryan himself) will probably lack the Ryan budget’s rough edges. The idea that Republican Tea Partiers won't let that happen is pretty far-fetched. Two months ago, nobody outside a few think tanks had ever heard of Medicare premium support, but now it’s suddenly a non-negotiable demand of the Republican base? I'm betting that, by Nov. 2012, the Ryan Medicare reforms are going to be very old news.
None of this means that Democrats can't, or won't, win the next election. It just means that, if Democrats were playing cards, they'd be well-advised to play out the hand they're now holding on the debt-ceiling negotiations and get used to reshuffling the deck for all of the hands they'll be playing between now and Nov. 2012.