“The Democrats may deserve to lose in November,” Timothy Egan wrote provocatively on the New York Times’ Opinionator blog yesterday. “They have been terrible at trying to explain who they stand for and the larger goal of their governance.”

He’s right.

Case in point: the manufactured debate over whether to build an Islamic community/cultural center in lower Manhattan, which has already been approved for construction and has the vociferous support of the mayor of New York. According to Talking Points Memo (h/t MJ Rosenberg), only fourteen Democratic members of Congress have come out in favor of Park 51. The rest have denounced the project, called for a useless compromise or sought to avoid the topic altogether. That’s not leadership. Such cheap demagoguery is to be expected of today’s xenophobic GOP, but the party that sent the first African-American president to the White House will—and should—be held to a higher standard.

The Park 51 frenzy is only one window into how the much-ballyhooed Democratic majority has gone awry. The House of Representatives has passed a good chunk of the ambitious legislative agenda Barack Obama unveiled upon assuming the presidency, yet much of it has been stalled, derailed or gutted in the Senate. As a result, the Congress appears supremely dysfunctional—which it is. In the face of Republican intransigence, Democrats are acting like a bunch of passive crybabies, with no clear plan for how to get out of this legislative morass.

Republicans have a clear slogan in 2010: elect us so that we can stop Obama’s radical march to socialism. What’s the Democrats’ slogan? Re-elect us so that we can kinda/sorta/try to pass Obama’s agenda? And what exactly is that agenda nowadays? No wonder the Democrats are in trouble. Voters like simplicity; in ’06 and ’08 Democrats were for “change,” no matter how nebulous that slogan was. Now we don’t know what Democrats would even do if they had another two, four or six years in office.

Obama hasn’t helped his party much either of late. His relentless attachment to pragmatism and post-partisanship has muddled the Democrats’ message. Even when he does something courageous—initially supporting Park 51, for example, he or his aides always seem to walk it back. Frustrated Democrats are urging Obama to present a theory of the case—a vision of what Democrats are for and how they’ll fight to get there—before it’s too late. Republicans certainly don’t deserve to win in 2010 but that doesn’t mean Democrats don’t deserve to lose.

Ari Berman’s new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.