WASHINGTON -- Here's what Democrats need to ponder: Can they prosper in the absence of George W. Bush?

His presidency was a tonic for Democrats and led to a blossoming of political creativity on the center-left not seen since the 1930s. No tactic, no program, no leader ever did more to catalyze the party than the rage Bush inspired.

The whole effort was summarized nicely by the party's slogan in 2006, "A New Direction for America." There was no need to specify north or south, east or west, up or down. Compared with Bush, any alternative destination seemed appealing. And by becoming the apotheosis of the fresh and the new, Barack Obama emerged as the most attractive guide to this unknown promised land.

The consequence is that Democrats must govern in one of the most difficult periods in American history while managing a sprawling coalition and working though a political structure near the point of breakdown -- largely because of the dilapidated state of that dysfunctional and undemocratic partisan hothouse, the United States Senate.

Especially if you account for the scope of the problems confronted, Democrats could argue they are doing pretty well. It's no small thing to save the economy from collapse. Winding down two wars is no picnic.

But politically, the Democrats are in trouble. They are at each other's throats over health care legislation that should be seen as one of the party's greatest triumphs. They are being held hostage by political narcissists and narrow slivers of their coalition.

When Democrats make deals, they are accused of selling out. When they fail to make deals, they are accused of not reaching out. Moderates complain that their party has gone too far to the left. Progressives chortle bitterly at this, asking what's left wing about policies that shore up banks and protect drug companies.

Rural-state centrists insist on more fiscal discipline -- as long as it doesn't affect farmers and small-town hospitals. Progressives ask why debt should be the priority when so much more needs to be done to relieve unemployment.

This is a recipe for political catastrophe. An increasingly bitter and negative Republican Party may not be able to win the midterm elections, but Democrats definitely can lose them.

Their fractiousness is dispiriting their supporters, which set off this urgent warning bell in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll: For the first time in his presidency, more Americans strongly disapprove of Obama's performance in office (33 percent) than strongly approve (31 percent).

Put aside margins of error and the fact that the Dec. 10-13 poll showed a sudden bump in Republican identification that might be a statistical anomaly. The point is that the trend is perilous. In June, strong approvers of Obama outnumbered strong disapprovers by 36 percent to 22 percent. Ardor and energy are switching sides.

There are no instant cures, but there is one thing that must be done fast: Democrats need to agree on a health bill and start selling it with enthusiasm and conviction. Their own turmoil and back-stabbing are making what is a rather good plan look like a failure while persuading political independents that they are a feuding gang rather than a governing party.

They have to focus in 2010 on immediate job creation and long-term economic mobility while explaining how aggressive measures to boost the economy now go hand in hand with eventual deficit reduction.

Congressional moderates must understand that their fate is linked with the party's ability to govern, and grass-roots progressives have to be less on a hair-trigger to shout betrayal. (I wish I knew what to do about Joe Lieberman.)

For his part, Obama has not appreciated until recently how closely he has been tied to Wall Street and the banks. He has been too reluctant to underscore how much of Washington's dysfunction has been pushed to new levels by the Republican Party's decision to grind the Senate to a halt. He has tried to make clear the size of the mess he inherited from Bush, but has not sold the country on the extent to which he has begun to clean it up.

Americans may not be sold on anything until unemployment starts dropping. Even then, Democrats will have a tough time making the sale if the process that produced the health care bill comes to define the image of how they govern the country. Democrats have every right to blame Bush for the fix we're in. They can't blame him for the problems they're creating for themselves.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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