In an election, a solid “no” usually beats an uneasy “yes, but.” That’s the heart of the problem Democrats and President Obama face this fall.

The advantage of saying “no” without equivocation is that a significant share of the electorate is usually ready to shout the word from the rooftops, especially when the economy is as bad as it is now. Both parties have regularly offered variations on the late George C. Wallace’s brilliant slogan, “Send them a message.” The catchphrase leaves voters free to define who “them” is, and to fill in the message themselves.

Democrats know this since the power of negative thinking won them back both houses of Congress in 2006. Their supporters swarmed the polling places to say no to George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

That’s why identifying the GOP as “the party of no” won’t do the Democrats as much good as they’d like to think. With more than a third of conservative Republicans declaring that our Christian president is a Muslim, just saying no to him is a more than adequate motivation to spend a few minutes with a ballot.

And “no” is certainly more powerful than the mixed messages Democrats are putting forward. In their sweeping victories of 2006 and 2008, Democrats picked up dozens of seats in very conservative districts. Many of these incumbents don’t want to be associated in the least with the remarkable record their party has built in this Congress for fear of tying themselves to Obama or the party’s congressional leadership, or both. But this means that Democrats are defending their achievements halfheartedly, while Republicans are assailing them without mercy and, often enough, without much concern for accuracy.

To solve this problem, the Democrats have come up with a loud “no” of their own, asking voters to reject the Republican past one more time to avoid moving the country backward. The president makes this case by providing some reflections on driving. “When you want to move forward in your car, what do you do? You put your car in ‘D,’ ” he says. “When you want to go backwards, you put it in ‘R’ — back into the ditch!”

It’s a nice line, but will it get enough of his party’s supporters to drive themselves to the polls? What’s missing from the Democrats’ campaign is a willingness to raise the stakes of the election. This may be the only way to inspire the party’s own supporters and move those independents still open to persuasion.

The principled case that must be made is that the brand of conservatism seeking power this year is irresponsible, incoherent and untrue to the best of its own traditions. That’s clear enough at the most basic level of policy: Conservatives can say that they are deeply worried about deficits, or they can insist that tax cuts matter most. But when they say they can reduce taxes and trim deficits at the same time, they are either deluded or deceptive, and they are playing voters for fools.

But there is something far more troubling at work: the rise of an angry, irrational extremism — the sort that says Obama is a Muslim socialist who wasn’t born in the U.S. — that was not part of Ronald Reagan’s buoyant conservative creed. Do Republican politicians believe in the elaborate conspiracy theories being spun by Glenn Beck and parts of the tea party movement? If not, why won’t they say so? Liberals who refused to break with the far left in the 1950s and ’60s were accused of being blinded by a view that saw “no enemies on the left.” Are conservatives who should know better now falling into a “no enemies on the right” trap?

When Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert warns, with absolutely no proof, of the dangers of “terror babies” — children whose mothers allegedly come to the United States to give birth so their offspring can have American passports for later use in terrorist activities — have we not crossed into never-never land? Where are the responsible conservatives who should be denouncing such crackpottery?

What the current right has on offer is far worse than anything Bush put forward, which means that this election isn’t even about whether we’ll go back into the ditch. It’s about whether a movement that’s gone over a cliff will be rewarded for doing so. A victory for this style of conservatism will be a defeat for the kind of conservatism the country needs. And that’s a worthy matter to put to the voters.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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