By EJ Dionne: For the first time in Obama's presidency, Republicans are uncertain as to whether resolute opposition to a Democratic idea is in their political interest.
The earnest young politician declared, "There's something else you need to know about me, which is I believe the test of a good and strong society is how we look after the most vulnerable, the most frail and the poorest." This lovely bleeding-heart-liberal sentiment was part of the closing statement offered by David Cameron, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, at last week's final debate before today's election. And after a rocky campaign start, Cameron now leads in the polls and may well become the next prime minister.
Contrast Cameron's deliberate effort to reach out to voters who, as he has put it, have "idealism and progressive ideals hard-wired into their DNA" with what's happening in the Republican Party.
In today's GOP, someone like Cameron would be condemned as a big-government sellout and buried under a mountain of tea bags. For even as the news in Britain focused on Cameron's comeback courtesy of his effort to detoxify the Conservative Party brand, the political news here was Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to abandon the Republicans and run for the U.S. Senate as an independent.
Of course there was self-interest involved. Crist would probably have lost the primary fight he just escaped to conservative Marco Rubio. But that's also the point. Unlike the British Conservatives, our Republicans are forcing out big-tent politicians of Crist's stripe wherever they can. When as solid a conservative as Utah's Sen. Bob Bennett is in danger of being denied renomination, you know that the right-wing Jacobins are on the march.
There's also this: The angry, incendiary and sometimes racist tone that is being projected at party rallies — and by legislation such as Arizona's Don't-Risk-Looking-Hispanic "immigration" law — is starting to give Democrats real hope that they might avoid electoral catastrophe this fall.
No sentient Democrat expects this to be a good year. But the closer the Republican Party is to the fringe, the easier it will be for Democrats to win back middle-of-the-road voters who have strayed since President Obama's election.
"All this hyperbole and outrage and the Tea Party tiger the Republicans are riding are pushing them over the edge," Rep. Earl Blumenauer said last week. The independent-minded Oregon Democrat is not given to partisan outbursts, but he sees the extreme posturing of Republicans combined with "the insanity of what's going on in Arizona" as having the potential of changing the year's political trajectory.
Republicans, from my conversations, are starting to worry that a purely negative approach to this fall's elections will be insufficient to put the party over the top. That helps explain why House Republican Leader John Boehner took to National Public Radio (and not Glenn Beck's show) to promise that the GOP would be about more than a large number of exclamation points after the word "no."
"We have a project underway that people will see soon," Boehner said, "that will engage the American people in helping us develop our agenda that we would enact if we're fortunate enough to win the majority in November." Of course there was negative even in the positive, since he acknowledged that part of this approach will be repealing and replacing this year's health-care bill.
The Arizona madness is a good example of how Republicans are working hard to rescue the Democrats. The state's new law, pushed by Republicans in the legislature and signed by the Republican governor, would require police to question anyone of whom there is "reasonable suspicion" that he or she might be an undocumented immigrant.
It is so sweeping that as staunch a conservative as Jeb Bush came out against it for raising "civil liberties issues" that are "significant." But many in his party (including, sadly, Sen. John McCain) are supporting the measure or, as in the case of House Republican whip Eric Cantor, declining to take a stand.
It tells you something when politicians are forced by pressures inside their party to embrace what they must know is wrong. And as a political matter, Republicans have just given Democrats a huge boost by reminding Latinos why it's important to vote this fall.
In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labor Party is trying to hang on by insisting that Cameron's changes to the Conservative Party are merely cosmetic. Democrats don't have that burden. Here, moderate Republicans are being forced to plaster themselves with right-wing makeup just to survive. Or, like Charlie Christ, they're deciding to go natural, and leave.
E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post, writing on national policy and politics. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.