PLAYING THE EXPECTATIONS GAME…. We’re starting to see some mixed messages from the party establishments. For the past several months, GOP leaders have practically started measuring the drapes in the Speaker’s office, confident that Republicans would take the House in the 2010 midterms. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have insisted that 2010 is not 1994, and that the chamber will not change hands.

Now, both are starting to shift. Just today, we’re getting a different message from Republicans

RNC chair Michael Steele doesn’t think his party can take back the House in ’10, and even if they do, he doesn’t know if the GOP is ready.

Appearing on Sean Hannity’s nationally syndicated show the same day his new book, “Right Now,” hit store shelves, Steele said the GOP is set for “nice pick-ups” in the House. But, he said, at the moment there aren’t enough candidates to take out enough Dems.

“I can’t give a number [of seats the GOP will win] yet, because like I said, we’re just now beginning to look at the races,” Steele said. Asked if GOPers will take back the House, Steele confessed: “Not this year.”

…and a different message from Democrats.

Democratic incumbents face the most threatening political environment since the Republican landslide of 1994 — and they know it.

The trends are all moving in the wrong direction…. “If the election were held today, we’d lose the House,” says Democratic campaign consultant Tom King, a view shared, off the record, by a number of his colleagues.

I suspect there’s some gamesmanship at play here. Republican leaders have been so energetic about raising expectations, the RNC probably realizes that 25 to 30 pickups in November would suddenly seem like a failure, so Steele is likely dialing back expectations accordingly.

Likewise, Democratic leaders have been telling everyone — publicly and privately — that they’re facing a tough cycle but that things will work out in the end. Since complacency will only make matters worse, it’s time for a new message — if Dems don’t start delivering more, the results may be devastating for the party and the country.

Who’s right? My sense is that these predictions are overwrought and premature. We don’t yet know who all the candidates will be; what the polls will look like; what the fundraising will look like; and what the national conditions will be. Will the economy improve or not? Will conditions in Afghanistan get better or worse? Will terrorism drive the debate? Will health care help or hurt candidates?

No one knows. No one can know. There’s obviously a motivated right-wing base that wants to stop any and all national progress, and there’s a frustrated progressive base that’s threatening to stay home. The country will either go forward or backward, but saying with certainty in early January is a fool’s errand.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.