There are two major theories about why Mitt Romney is dropping in the polls. One is that Romney is a lousy candidate, unable to connect with people or make his case. The other is that Americans are finally beginning to see how radical the GOPhas become and are repudiating it.
Most Republicans hold to the first view, for obvious reasons. And their long knives are already out.
Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan called the Romney campaign "incompetent" and "a rolling calamity." Republican guru William Kristol termed Mr. Romney's videotaped remarks about the 47 percent "arrogant and stupid." Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, slammed Mr. Romney for running a "lackluster campaign."
As his poll numbers continue to slide, conservative carping against Mr. Romney is growing louder -- prompting his wife, Ann Romney, to tell conservatives, "Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring."
OK, so maybe Mr. Romney isn't the best campaigner the world has ever seen. He's no Bill Clinton. But to put all the blame on Mr. Romney and his campaign misses a fundamental reality: Today's Republican Party is more radical and extreme than it's been in more than 80 years.
Don't just take my word for it. Norman Ornstein, a distinguished political observer and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (hardly a liberal bastion) and his colleague Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than four decades. They say they've never seen Washington as dysfunctional as it is now. And they blame Republicans.
"We have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party," they wrote in The Washington Post in April. In their view, the GOP has become "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
While Democrats "may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25," say Ornstein and Mann, "the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post."
Most Americans don't pay all that much attention to politics most of the time. But as the presidential election has begun to loom, they've started to notice.
They saw the Republican primaries and then they watched the Republican convention. And they've found a GOP far removed from the "compassionate conservatism" the party tried to sell in 2000.
Instead, they've found a party dominated by tea partiers, nativists, social Darwinists, homophobes, right-wing evangelicals, and a few rich people whose only interest is to become even wealthier.
These regressive elements were there in 2000, to be sure. They lurked in the GOP in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich took over the House. They were there in the 1980s, too, although Ronald Reagan's sunny disposition gave them cover. In truth, they've been part of the GOP for more than half a century.
But never before have these regressives held so much sway in the Republican Party. Never before have they called the shots.
Unfortunately for the GOP, most Americans don't share these extreme views.
In other words, the GOP's problem isn't Mitt Romney. It's the other way around. Mitt Romney's problem is the GOP.
The GOP is also the problem for an increasing number of Republicans around the country in Senate and House races. Sen. Scott Brown, for example, is well-liked in Massachusetts. Up until recently the polls showed him slightly ahead of his opponent, Elizabeth Warren.
But Mr. Brown's poll numbers have been dropping in recent weeks. That's not because of the Romney campaign. Mr. Romney was governor of Massachusetts; if Mr. Romney had been Mr. Brown's problem, it would have been a problem from the start.
Mr. Brown is dropping because he's had to carry the burden of the public's increasing distaste for the GOP. The same is true of Senate races in Virginia, Florida and elsewhere.
Mr. Romney hasn't been letting the GOP down. To the contrary, Mr. Romney's been giving this GOP exactly what it wants in a candidate.
And that's exactly the problem for Mr. Romney -- as it is for many other Republican candidates -- because what the GOP wants is not at all what the rest of America wants.
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the author of "Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it," a Knopf release now out in paperback.