So what happened to the brave new liberal era? Well, a few things. The Wall Street bailout made big government seem like a corrupt racket. The unemployment rate made activist government appear helpless in a crisis. The yawning deficits made a free-spending government look like a luxury the country might not be able to afford…

Nor have Obama’s political instincts helped him through these difficulties. Presidents always take more blame than they deserve for political misfortune, but Obama’s style has invited disillusionment. His messianic campaign raised impossible hopes (particularly among Comedy Central viewers, apparently), and he has made a habit of baldly overpromising, whether the subject is the unemployment rate or the health care bill. Obama seems as if he would have been a wonderful chief executive in an era of prosperity and consensus, when he could have given soaring speeches every week and made us all feel tingly about America. But he’s miscast as a partisan scrapper, and unpersuasive when he tries to feel the country’s economic pain.

Thus his sagging poll numbers; thus the debacle that probably awaits his party on Tuesday. It will not be as grave a defeat as many conservatives would like to think: the health care bill may yet be remembered by liberals as a victory worth the price, the demographic trends are still with the Democrats, and the Republicans will return to power unprepared to wield it. But nonetheless, an opportunity has opened for the Right that would have been unimaginable just two years ago — a chance to pre-empt a seemingly inevitable liberal epoch with an unexpected conservative revival.