If the 2012 election were held today, Republicans could very well have their heads handed to them. I do not think this alone. Their debt ceiling high jinks were no doubt immensely amusing to the tea party fringe, but to those of us not getting the joke, they were an appalling attack on a fragile economy.
The tea party is turning from the voice of anger to its target, and Republicans have it hanging around their neck. The first trumpet blast of wrath came in labor leader James Hoffa's intemperate call at a Democratic rally to -- and I tone him down considerably -- turn its candidates out of office.
We've reached the part of the Western where the townsfolk, long intimidated by a gang of bullies, suddenly find their courage and fight back. A snowballing of suppressed rage bodes ill for the Grand Old Party.
Riding high on the empowering results of the 2010 midterm election, Republicans apparently imagined that despair over the economy equaled love for them. President Obama's falling approval numbers may also give them solace, but his ratings soar next to Republicans in the House. And bear in mind that the new critics include liberals incensed by the president's lack of fervor -- but who would not vote for a GOP hothead if hell froze over (in the ultimate refutation of global warming).
The baddest sign of all is that the townsfolk are being joined by traditional Republicans (and we assume Republican-leaning independents) who can no longer hold their tongues. For example, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel told the Financial Times that he was "disgusted" by the campaign against raising the debt ceiling.
"It was an astounding lack of responsible leadership by many in the Republican Party, and I say that as a Republican," Hagel said. He characterized much of the recent stock market convulsions as "the complete direct result of the lack of confidence that came out of that folly."
Hagel held out the possibility that the Republican Party could "go down" in 2012 and that it would have to rebuild as it did after 1964. In that year, Democrats gained the largest House majority held by any party since 1936.
Next in line are the Chamber of Commerce types who feel that the tea party politicians they supported in the 2010 elections double-crossed them by willfully hurting America's standing in world financial markets. In early June, U.S. Chamber President Thomas Donohue bluntly warned House Republicans that if they voted against raising the debt ceiling, "We'll get rid of you."
Many disobeyed, and their circus act helped push a U.S. debt downgrade. That unleashed a collapse of consumer confidence, further punishing businesses in an already tough economy.
Holding America's credit rating hostage goes along the same anarchic lines as the Republicans' 1995 shutdown of the federal government, led by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich. That stunt also turned popular distaste toward Republicans.
And remember America's most famous political upset in 1948. Almost no one thought Democratic President Harry Truman would get a second term. But after railing against the "do-nothing" Republican Congress, he won the election -- and Democrats took majority control of both the House and Senate besides.
The Republicans may still hear loud clapping, but they should observe how many have left the theater. To win, their opponents don't have to be liked. They just have to be liked more than them.