ATLANTA -- About 70 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a striking indication of a profound malaise not seen since the days of Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Ronald Reagan not only defeated Mr. Carter in his re-election bid, but Mr. Reagan also ushered in an era of Republican dominance that lasted for a generation.
President Bill Clinton had a great run, capitalizing on a heady time when the Berlin Wall was but a memory to consign budget deficits to the dustbin (temporarily), too. Still, the GOP was the party of ideas, and those ideas held sway over national politics.
Conditions this year might portend another long-lasting realignment. With his administration's record of incompetence at home and abroad, highly partisan excesses, corruption and cronyism - not to mention the sullying of America's reputation - President Bush's approval ratings hover in the low 30s.
And he has dragged his party down with him. According to a Pew Center study, the Democratic and Republican parties could each claim about 43 percent of voters in 2002. By last year, about 50 percent of voters said they leaned Democratic, while only 35 percent said they leaned Republican.
The lack of enthusiasm for the GOP has slowed the cash flow for its presidential candidates. The GOP also looks set to lose more seats in Congress.
Even conservative pundit George Will, a Republican establishment icon, has acknowledged the GOP slump. "Nov. 4 could be their most disagreeable day since Nov. 3, 1964," Mr. Will wrote earlier this year. "Actually, this November could be even worse because in 1964, Barry Goldwater's loss of 44 states served a purpose, the ideological reorientation and revitalization of the party. Which Republican candidate this year could produce a similarly constructive loss?"
The problem for the Democrats - should they manage to regain the Oval Office - is figuring out how to set the country aright. Tempting as it is to blame Mr. Bush for everything, some of the nation's problems predate this White House and will challenge the next one.
The economy has been showing every sign of sclerosis since the 1980s, when the slow decline of American manufacturing picked up speed, leaving Rust Belt cities adrift. As factory jobs disappeared, taking with them good wages, health care and pensions, the income gap grew into a chasm.
Most economists and political scientists were pointing out that the loss of manufacturing jobs would continue - with or without laws enabling free trade. As China and India modernized and built factories, they could produce TVs and textiles much more cheaply than we could.
Two decades back would have been a great time for a grand national strategy to figure out America's comparative advantage in the 21st century. Our best bet likely would have been to pour money into public education and scientific research to create industries for products that Chinese and Indian workers could not yet produce. Green technology to combat climate change, perhaps?
But America's vaunted democracy is not especially suited for long-term thinking. Presidents and members of Congress don't find it advantageous to work on a 20-year solution.
Now, with the nation deeply in debt, with Asian and Middle Eastern nations holding our markers, with even highly skilled jobs being outsourced to other nations, it's a bit late to get started on a plan to rebuild our economic fundamentals. Let's hope it's not too late.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Chapman's column will return Friday.