You know it's bad for President Obama when The New York Times is advising him to get tough with his own party: "It is time for Mr. Obama to think about what Lyndon Johnson would do. Mr. Johnson did not flinch from confronting his caucus when he needed to, and neither should Mr. Obama."
Surely someone at the Times remembers what happened to Johnson in 1968. Rather than face a bruising election he was certain to lose, he stepped aside. He did it largely for the good of the Democratic Party, and it doubtlessly helped reduce the damage. Richard Nixon was the strongest challenger the Republicans could run against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Nixon won in a close race. But the election was less of a rout of the Democrats than it could have been.
Even though the political air these days is fluttering with rumors about Obama being asked, pressured, or encouraged not to run for reelection, that probably won't happen. The party that invested so much irrational exuberance in him in 2008 is stuck with him now. If they're tempted to daydream about the ideal candidate riding out the gloom, taking the convention by storm, sweeping up delegates and stirring the popular imagination in a repeat of 2008-style, chanting-and-swooning euphoria, they'll also have to ask who that candidate might be.
In 1968, it was Robert Kennedy-until the very early morning of June 5 at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. But even after Kennedy's assassination, other viable candidates and fresh faces populated the Democratic field: Eugene McCarthy, Ed Muskie, Julian Bond. George McGovern represented the future of the party, George Wallace (who ran that year as a third-party candidate) its past. In 1980, when Jimmy Carter was facing a crisis of confidence similar to Obama's, Ted Kennedy was the upstart challenger who, credible or not, had to be pacified. But who is it now?
I've been asking this question for the last month or so, and have lately noticed others asking it, too. Party leaders like Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi sound increasingly irrelevant, if not downright batty. John Kerry was barely acceptable in 2004, and his running mate John Edwards is trying to stay out of jail. Stalwarts like Charles Schumer and Dick Durbin are stuck in their own ruts, and the most visible Democrat governor is Jerry Brown.
Hillary Clinton probably comes to mind first as a possible protest candidate, but taking on a sitting president in your own party is a huge gamble she may not be prepared to make. Besides, her day has probably passed: Unfair as it seems, the age that can make a male politician look "distinguished" often just make a woman look tired. Four years ago, when taking about youth and charisma on the Democrat side, the first name to pop up was Obama's. Did nobody notice that his was the only name?
By contrast, the Republican bench is almost groaning under the weight of promising rookies-and I'm not just talking about Chris Christie. Marco Rubio is the most prominent rising star in Congress, but there's also Paul Ryan, Alan West, Tim Scott, and Scott Brown, seasoned advisors like Mitch Daniels and Rudy Giuliani, media stars like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, effective governors like Bob McDonnell, Sam Brownback, and Bobby Jindal. Lots of names come to mind without thinking-a common refrain this election cycle is that the bench is stronger than the starting lineup. But even that's not totally true: As Newt Gingrich likes to say, any one of the present contenders for the Republican nomination would be an improvement on the current resident of the White House.
The latest Rasmussen poll shows Obama within a few percentage points of both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, but the campaign hasn't really started yet. The Democrats' problem is profound: It's bad for a party when almost all its recognizable leaders are over 65.
If 2012 is a disaster for them, I'm not one who will join the inevitable chorus of "Is this the end of the Democrats?" They'll survive-any party that could survive the Civil War has invincible staying power. But sooner or later they'll have to reinvent themselves. The fact that most of the political talent is on the Republican side is a good indication that the best ideas are there too.