Richmond, Va. - Here in the onetime capital city of the Confederacy, a city I once flippantly referred to as "a hotbed of social rest," a dozen solidly Republican voters spent more than two hours on a Thursday night pessimistically assessing their party and their children's future in a session moderated by pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Every one of the dozen had voted twice for George W Bush. But they were far from upbeat about his presidency. "Mixed results," was the assessment of Brian Matt, a 48-year-old mortgage banker. "Uneven," offered another. Fitness instructor Ann Turner, 34, said simply: "Disappointment. I think we need a breath of fresh air."
But even more ominously, all 12 Republicans - the political "children" of Mr. Optimism himself, Ronald Reagan - believe that their own children's future lives will be worse economically than their own lives have been.
Republicans have long proudly trumpeted their own optimism and that of their party about the nation's future, frequently contrasting it to the occasional "Chicken Little" tendencies of Democrats. The psychic burden of an unpopular president whom they chose leading an unpopular war he chose while the nation's economy turns shaky before their eyes hurts. One inescapable conclusion, after listening for two hours, is that these Virginia Republicans are demoralized about the condition and prospects of their party.
Toward the 2008 stable of GOP candidates, their feelings were ambivalent. Forty-four-year-old substitute teacher Jill Morley, the mother of six, found the Republican field contained "no standouts." Insurance salesman David Armstrong, 42, called them "second-string."
While there were some positive words about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 9-11 leadership, Arizona Sen. John McCain's heroic patriotism and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson unpretentious likeability, as well as for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's strong presence and good looks (but with five of them candidly expressing reservations about and hostility toward his Mormon faith), pollster Peter Hart concluded after the session: "They are dying to find somebody. But nobody has yet emerged."
While these Richmond-area Republicans have failed to rally behind a single 2008 champion, there is one candidate who enthusiastically unites them all: the Democratic front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. She succeeds in making Republicans forget the perceived liabilities of their own candidates.
To David Armstrong, who had earlier said he "couldn't vote for a Mormon," the prospect of another President Clinton changed his mind: "There's Mormons, and there's insects, and there's Democrats."
Beyond the candidate preferences and prejudices, what was most memorable about the evening with these Republicans was their gloominess. That this was no one-time aberration was indicated in the November Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, which asked, "Do you think America is in a state of decline, or do you feel this is not the case?"
"America ... in a state of decline," you would agree, is a pretty bleak evaluation. Well, 57 percent of the respondents, including majorities of whites, blacks and Hispanics, agreed, while 38 percent disagreed. Pessimism among Hispanics is especially significant. Immigrants have always been the most optimistic of Americans, while Hispanics in general - and most especially Hispanic immigrants - have been consistently more upbeat about how their children's generation will live than have been white and black Americans.
The consequences of "Gloomy Gus" Republicans and downbeat voters mean a lot more than who will win or lose the White House. Optimism is the parent of confidence, which nurtures large dreams and bold initiatives. Pervasive pessimism breeds timidity and self-centeredness, hardly the basic ingredients for seeking, let alone writing, the next Great American Era.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.