When Bush glides into the scene of a tragedy, floating in the molasses-thick bubble of banality that surrounds him at all times, the results can be painful to watch. But the tone-deafness of Bush’s response to the bridge collapse offers yet another illustration of how far the national debate has moved away from the Republicans. As hard as it may be for many progressives to accept it, scarred as they are by years of GOP abuse and the tepid, apologetic stance of their own allies, the time has finally come for them to defend, without reservation, the idea of a vigorous, engaged government. They can finally say, without fear of disastrous political consequences, that sometimes government is not the problem, it’s the solution.

For the last seven years we’ve seen what happens when people who have nothing but contempt for government are given its reins. Amidst all the misery that has resulted is the greatest political opportunity Democrats have had in decades.

Yes, the public can’t stand George W. Bush. But the discontent goes far deeper. Democrats can either address that discontent and explain its true sources, or wait for their opponents to find a way to blame it all on them. Many of us believe that this is a defining moment in the ongoing ideological struggle between conservatism and progressivism. But that moment will be squandered unless those with access to the public make clear exactly what these debates are about. Issues like SCHIP and maintaining our infrastructure get to the differences that should define our politics. But they only do so if the most important players in the debate make the decision to talk about them that way.