Let’s get this straight: The federal deficit is such a big crisis that we can’t extend benefits for millions of Americans who are unemployed, many of them in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure? But without a second thought we can extend a massive, temporary tax cut for the rich, even though asking the wealthy to pay their fair share would go a long way toward erasing the deficit?

This, as helpfully laid out by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, is the Republican Party’s economic policy. It’s tempting to conclude that if Democrats lose big in November, it will be their own fault because they’re running against a party that’s preaching pure incoherence.

The thing is, we already know that the Republicans’ prescription for the economy doesn’t work. We gave their approach an eight-year trial under George W. Bush — basically, squeeze money out of the middle class and transfer it to the upper class, which theoretically then shows its gratitude by creating jobs for what BP’s chairman would call “the small people.” The result of the experiment has been the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.

That should settle the question of what happens this fall. Democrats ought to be looking at the prospect of only modest losses, consistent with the historical pattern of midterm elections. Instead, they are going to have to fight tooth and nail to keep their congressional majorities, especially in the House.

I’m of the school that contends White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did his party a favor by publicly stating the obvious: Control of the House of Representatives is in play. I’m also of the opinion that the Republican Party’s prospects aren’t quite as sunny as some observers believe. But Gibbs’ candor seemed to jolt Democrats out of the sour lassitude in which they had been mired. The party has now shifted into something resembling a sour frenzy, but that’s an improvement.

One reason I’m not so confident of a Republican blowout in the fall is that while polls clearly show that the country is in an anti-incumbent mood, there’s also considerable evidence that people see the GOP as part of the problem, not part of the solution. A new Washington Post poll, for example, showed that 58 percent of voters have “just some” confidence, or even less, in President Obama’s leadership, and that 68 percent were similarly doubtful about the ability of congressional Democrats to lead. But 72 percent had little or no faith in congressional Republicans — which suggests to me that the GOP has work to do before its leaders start picking out new office suites in the Capitol.

Another reason for caution is that the Republican Party is out of step with the American public on so many issues. Americans want to see unemployment benefits extended. They want tougher financial regulation, complete with consumer protections. Even health care reform, which the GOP succeeded in painting as the Apocalypse, becomes more popular as the months pass and somehow the world does not end.

It’s true that on some issues, Republicans hold the more popular position. On illegal immigration, for example, most Americans agree with the GOP’s get-tough, border-first approach. But Latino voters are passionate in supporting Obama’s policy of seeking comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already here. If Democrats can harness this passion, they can hold on to House and Senate seats that otherwise might slip away — and, in the process, potentially cement the support of the nation’s largest minority group for decades to come.

After rising from the ashes of 2008 by uniting in opposition to anything Obama and the Democrats tried to do, Republicans are defined more by the word “no” than by anything else. They have a rallying cry but not a program. Are the populist, tea party types really going to accept the fat-cat economic philosophy of the GOP congressional leadership? Is “drill, baby, drill” a viable energy strategy after the BP disaster? Is Sen. Lindsey Graham the voice of the party on Afghanistan, or is it Michael Steele?

That’s a lot for Democrats to work with. I happen to believe that Obama and his party have established a remarkable record of achievement. Many Americans do not agree, however, and the thing to do is not to sulk and feel misunderstood but to go out and change people’s minds.

Democrats need to get over themselves. And then they need to get busy.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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