Fred Thompson sure has his work cut out for him.
With so many disillusioned Republicans desperate for a presidential candidate they can get excited about, not to mention their yearning for a public official more in line with the "family values" wing of the party, he's bound to get a big bump after Thursday's announcement of his candidacy.
All Thompson has to do is pick up where Bush left off - remember that line about restoring "honor and dignity" to the White House? Forget about Iraq, the housing market, collapsing infrastructure and Alberto Gonzales. The great thing for Republicans about Thompson's declaration is that it replaces the news about Larry Craig.
Of course, campaigning on sexual morality was easier for Bush than for Thompson, who, as gossip columnists have pointed out, would install a trophy wife as first lady. As long as they didn't meet in the men's room, the base will probably overlook it.
In an informal survey over Labor Day weekend, The New York Times found that "Democrats appeared happy" with their party's presidential candidates, while Republicans were having trouble "generating much enthusiasm."
Can you blame them?
As Stephen Hayes pointed out in The Weekly Standard, Thompson is running as the "real conservative" against Mitt Romney - that suspiciously congenial governor of a liberal, northeastern state - and Rudolph Giuliani, who is pro-choice and, as Labor Day parade-goers repeatedly told the Times, has had three wives.
Thompson is pro-life, pro-tax cuts and pro-Iraq war. His strongest critique of President Bush is that he didn't start the "surge" sooner - pouring more soldiers and weapons into Iraq from the very beginning. "If we had done this three years ago we would have been in much better shape," he said in The Weekly Standard.
Thompson also criticized the White House for not communicating more effectively and getting the public behind the war (as if spin alone could overcome the disaster in Iraq). Thompson's greatest strength, his advisers told Hayes, is his "ability to communicate."
Like that other "great communicator" canonized by the Republican faithful, Thompson is an actor with a soothing, paternal charm that reminds people of simpler times. He sings all the old numbers from the conservative songbook in a comforting baritone.
He may be just the ticket for the jangled, discombobulated red staters who elected a "uniter" and got neoconservatism run amok.
The Democrats are feeling a giddy sense of possibility with their younger, more sparkling group of candidates. But, as Matt Bai points out in his new book The Argument, the party is still suffering from having no clear set of principles beyond "we're not the other guy."
In particular, Hillary Clinton, as she pulls away from her closest rivals, throws red meat to Democratic voters when she criticizes the president. But she still seems intent on keeping troops in Iraq, and the specifics of her purportedly universal health care plan have yet to be revealed.
Like her husband before her, Clinton is a good triangulator, carefully positioning her political compass between the right and left on most issues.
Bai closes his book with an account of a 2006 speech by Mario Cuomo to a group of big liberal donors. Democrats were in a great mood after their take-over of Congress. But Cuomo popped their bubble.
"Now it's 2006 and we're all rejoicing. Why? Because of Iraq. A gift. A gift to the Democrats. A lot of whom voted for the war anyway." Without the Iraq war, and the opposition it generated, the Democrats had no winning idea, Cuomo said.
As far as Bai is concerned, this is still true today.
It's an important point. Big, controversial, culture-changing ideas drive politics, not sitting back while the other side kicks out the chair and hangs itself.
Still, the Democrats have had an incredible run of luck sticking to the latter strategy. How long can it last?
Thompson will campaign on the big ideas of the last generation of Republicans. If the progressive grassroots is pushy enough, just maybe the Democrats will be forced to articulate a new vision for the country.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of the Progressive Magazine.