Evidence of conservative despair isn't hard to find nowadays in Washington.
"We're doomed!" one veteran communications operative of the Right exclaimed last week when I asked her to assess the current campaign.
Similar views are expressed privately by many other Republicans, including some professionally employed as part of the GOP election apparatus. Talking to them is like walking into the Redskins locker room before a Dallas game and being told by Washington players that the Cowboys are unbeatable.
There are clear reasons for this defeatist mood. Congressional Republicans seem to have learned nothing from their 2006 drubbing. Polls indicate that the anti-Republican sentiment of two years ago has only deepened since then, and not even the sunniest optimist on the Right sees any prospect of the GOP recapturing either house of Congress in November.
Yet for all the dark clouds looming over Republicans on the congressional front, the gloom seems deepest when conservatives consider the presidential campaign.
Perhaps overwhelmed by the media enthusiasm for Sen. Barack Obama (who has been thrilling Chris Matthews' legs for five months now) many conservatives seem to have accepted the Democrat's victory as inevitable, or even desirable.
Matt Welch, editor of the libertarian journal Reason, recently summed up the attitude of many Beltway Republicans: "'Look, we're out of ideas, we're exhausted, it's not working, we don't know what our principles are anymore, let's take one for the team and have a black guy be the president for a while.'"
Even beyond the ranks of "Obamacons" -- conservatives openly in favor of the presumptive Democratic nominee -- many on the Right have begun discussing prospects of an Obama presidency in tones of weary acceptance they never used when speaking of Al Gore or John Kerry.
Philip Klein's "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" expressed a very widespread belief among younger conservative intellectuals that an Obama administration might not be so bad.
Some conservatives (not all of them young intellectuals) actually dread a John McCain victory as an unmerited ratification of the GOP's abandonment of principle. They believe Republicans "deserve to get their [rear ends] kicked," as the veteran communications operative told me last week.
Deserved or not, many Republicans are clearly preparing for such a repudiation in November. It was a telling admission that when a trio of conservative online strategists created a web forum this spring to discuss their ideas, they called their venture The Next Right -- a tacit acknowledgment of fading confidence in the current Right.
ARE PROSPECTS REALLY so bleak? Despite the dispirited state of the GOP, the ideological muddling of the McCain campaign, and the media accolades for Obama, it is far from a foregone conclusion that Hope and Change will triumph Nov. 4.
The lingering menace of unrequited Hillary Clinton supporters -- the PUMAs -- has made party unity so problematic for Democrats as to nearly neutralize the lack of Republican enthusiasm for McCain.
Opinion polls undercut the notion of an insuperable Obama advantage. While the Gallup daily tracking poll has consistently shown the Democrat with only a small lead or in a dead heat with McCain, Obamamaniacs were thrilled by last month's Newsweek poll showing their candidate ahead by 15 points.
Alas for the apostles of Hope, either that poll was a statistical mirage or else the mass movement toward Obama quickly receded, and Newsweek reported last week that his lead is now an insignificant 3 percentage points.
Disregarding this slender margin in the polls, and seemingly undaunted by Obama's inability to finish off Clinton until the final stage of the Democratic primaries, Team Obama now appears convinced that the general election campaign will be a triumphant march to victory.
Obama's handlers will send him jaunting off to Europe next week, heedless of whether this could feed the perception of their candidate as an arrogant elitist. And the brain trust at Team Obama has airily dismissed criticism of their plan for an open-air rally for 70,000-plus at Denver's Mile-High Stadium during the Democratic National Convention next month.
The sense of Obama's inevitability that has contributed so much to Republican despair might actually be inducing the kind of hubris among Democrats that so often has been their undoing. Skeptics who recall that Mike Dukakis held a 17-point lead in July 1988 evidently have no influence at Hope HQ.
RECALLING THE HAPLESS Bush 41 presidency that was the disastrous denouement of Dukakis's defeat, disaffected conservatives no doubt will ask, "What's the point of electing an ideologically unsound Republican president who is almost certain to further damage the GOP 'brand'?"
A fair question, and it's hard to summon a positive argument in response. But the purely negative argument -- the potential benefit of dealing the Democrats their third consecutive presidential loss -- is not entirely without merit.
Among other things, beating a supposedly unbeatable Obama despite the lackluster qualities of the Republican nominee would be a testimony to the latent power of the conservative movement. And it's hard not to smile when contemplating the Democrats' probable reaction to another defeat.
After their bitter disappointment over the 2000 Gore-Bush showdown in Florida, and their rage over the "Swiftboating" of Kerry in 2004, Democrats would descend into a state of political apoplexy if the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy snookered them a third time.
You think "Bush Derangement Syndrome" is bad? John McCain might become the first president to face impeachment on Inauguration Day. (Dennis Kucinich could easily whip up a 47-point indictment between Nov. 4 and Jan. 20.)
Granted, there's no civic virtue in electing a Republican president purely for the pleasure of crushing the hopes of liberals. But wouldn't it be fun?
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