Eight months from tomorrow, Americans will go to the polls to vote in what is in effect is a referendum on the future of the Republican Party.
This is because the GOP, to riff on a phrase used by some of its presidential candidates this primary season in a far different context, is at a tipping point. Not Rick Santorum's tipping point -- "when those who pay are the minority and those who receive are the majority" -- but whether a party that has marched ever deeper into the electoral wilderness and away from what not long ago was a plausible shot at taking back the White House, can remain a national contender.
The reasons that Republicans have arrived at this crossroads less than two years after recapturing the House are not only obvious, they are acknowledged by saner party leaders in increasingly public denunciations of the culture war-based campaigns that Santorum, Newt Gingrich and even Mitt Romney have run dependent on red-meat hyperbole that appeals to the party's white, less educated and rural base.
It was Pat Buchanan who launched the culture wars with a fiery speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in which he railed against legal abortion, gay rights, discrimination against religious schools and women in combat.
That the GOP embraced all that and more, including making English the official language and denying citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, throughout the last decade is a commentary both on its fealty to evangelicals and hard right-wingers and the reality that it was bereft of policies beyond going to war with any country that gave America the finger.
It has not helped that President Obama, in some respects, has had some good luck to go along with his ability to lead and occasionally inspire.
But the biggest reason that Obama may be cruising to a landslide victory on November 6 is that the very people who elected him -- the young, college educated and independent women with a smattering of independent men -- are repelled by the racial, class and gender resentments that have become the Republican stock in trade. Stir in Republican congressfolk whose only goal has been to prevent Obama from doing his job while trying to pull the rug out from under the middle class, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, and you have a recipe for electoral Armageddon.
Beyond these factors is the reality that demographic trends favor the Democrats.
Republicans have made no effort to court Hispanics and other immigrants, who represent the fastest growing bloc of new voters. This bloc would seem to be a built-in opportunity for the GOP to win new friends and influence people, but instead it has denigrated the immigrant community and tried to impose draconian measures on it.
There is yet another reality as well: Modern American conservatism, which is to say Republicanism, appeals to so-called heartland values that are often expressed in anti-government and racial terms, and this too is a turn-off for the majority of voters, many of them black and brown, who hail from urban and suburban areas and may not be particularly fond of big government, but recognize the need for the safety net it provides and Republicans would deny them.
The Republicans have miscalculated in several key ways.
The party's strategy has been to strive for short-term victories rather than long term viability at the expense of broadening its base, while it willfully miscalculated that Obama had become so weak that voters could pretty much be ignored and it was a waste of time to develop policies and themes that might be viable alternatives to what the president and Democrats were saying and doing.
The result of all of this -- the weakest presidential field in memory, obstructionist politics, appealing to the few and ignoring or denigrating the many -- has resulted in a wholesale panic because it is now understood that the party has sabotaged itself and the result is that 2012 will be a do-or-die election.
The Republicans have worked hard to insure an apocalypse at the polls and they deserve one. Yet Obama and the Democratic majority are certainly not without fault while America needs two healthy political parties. As things stand, one of those parties is deathly ill and it may be a long time before it again becomes viable.
Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine