FOR MAYBE the first time since the Gingrich revolution rocked their world in 1994, Democrats smell electoral blood in the water.
The conservative crackup over Harriet E. Miers, followed by the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- both directly on the heels of the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina -- have unleashed a long-suppressed crisis of conscience and faith within the Republican church.
After more than a decade of controlling the House of Representatives, and after five years of a White House spending binge that would make even Lyndon Johnson blush, Republicans are coming to the awkward realization that they have become the party of Big Government as we know it.
Instead of balancing budgets, eliminating government agencies and paring back entitlements, Republicans have run up the largest debt in history, birthed the biggest new federal bureaucracy in 50 years and created the most expensive entitlement since Medicare. Instead of "restoring dignity to the White House," as they promised, Republican leaders are being charged with criminal corruption and obstruction of justice. President Bush's popularity is getting lower by the week, and a housing bubble is looming precariously over an already fragile economy.
So how should Democrats take advantage? That's the $500,000 question. New Republic Editor Peter Beinart, for instance, has signed a contract (for which he reportedly received at least that sum) to write a book encouraging the Democrats to out-tough the Republicans in the war on terror. Paul Waldman, of the activist group Media Matters and author of the forthcoming "Being Right Is Not Enough," thinks liberals should embrace their inner "progressive" and demonize conservatives the way Rush Limbaugh has baited liberals lo these many years. Party Chairman Howard Dean wants to revive the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," whatever that means.
But as an independent, this all looks dreary and self-defeating to me. How are Democrats going to out-hawk John "we always need more troops" McCain? And if I wanted a party as boringly pugilistic and partisan as Republicans, I'd vote for ... Republicans.
There's another road so obvious that the Democrats have barely considered it. If voters are fed up with irresponsible Big Government cronyism, why not offer a responsible alternative that keeps government out of people's lives except when necessary? After all, libertarian-leaning Republicans and independents are in play like they haven't been since at least 1996, and there's no saying they can't be won over by the Democrats.
This approach is already gaining a promising local foothold in the region where the Democratic Party should look for inspiration, talent and electoral votes: the Mountain West.
Three Mountain time zone states that voted for Bush in 2004 (Montana, New Mexico and Arizona) have Democratic governors who have moved in this direction. They balance budgets, embrace gun rights and display the kind of salty tolerance that resonates far better with Western tradition than the touchy-feely identity politics of the West Coast.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a leading 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, has slashed taxes, challenged public-sector unions and championed charter schools. Montana's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, a gun-toting farmer, has won massive popularity in a deeply red state with his pragmatic environmentalism and emphasis on energy production. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has stolen GOP thunder by embracing school choice.
These three governors have been talking to Democratic leaders about creating a "Western primary day," encompassing as many as eight states, during the next presidential election cycle. Though the number of electoral votes -- 44 during the 2004 election -- would pale in comparison to the South's Super Tuesday, it would nevertheless be impossible to ignore. The Mountain West is the fastest-growing region in the country and home to a traditional skepticism of government that the national party only seems to remember when it's out of power.
Democrats have already seen how far they can't go under the leadership of East Coast Brahmins and Southern Bubbas. A little ranch-flavored pragmatism for a change might go a long way.
And it might give a fleeting glimmer of hope to those of us who don't think the solution to Big Government is more of the same.