The headline on the Washington Post‘s “The Fix” column from Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake this morning reads, “The New York special election: Will Democrats panic?” The piece tells readers:

In the wake of Rep.-elect Bob Turner’s (R) upset victory in the special election in New York’s 9th district on Tuesday night, the prevailing question among Democrats will almost certainly be: Is it time to push the panic button?

About four months ago, when Democrats won a special election in upstate New York in a district long held by Republicans, Cillizza and Blake told readers:

One special election almost 18 months before the next general election does not a trend make, but it’s hard to imagine that House GOPers who voted for the Ryan budget didn’t wake up a little more nervous today than they did yesterday.

Right. Dems lose a race they expected to win, and the question is whether they’ll “push the panic button.” Republicans lose a race they expected to win, and House GOP members probably feel “a little more nervous.”

I’m not quite sure what it would look like if congressional Democrats did “push the panic button.” They’re already open to compromise and already eager to work on the issues voters care about most. How would panic translate into action? They’d stop trying to pass a jobs bill?

Regardless, the difference between how the parties handle setbacks continues to fascinate me. Consider some recent history.

* In 1998, voters were unimpressed, to put it mildly, with the Republican crusade against Bill Clinton. In the midterms, voters sent a message — in a historical rarity, the party that controlled the White House gained congressional seats in the sixth year of a presidency. It was a stinging rebuke of the GOP and its excesses. Did Republicans “push the panic button”? No, they impeached the president anyway during the lame-duck session.

* In 2006, voters were widely dissatisfied with the war in Iraq, and wanted to see a withdrawal. In the midterms, the Republican majority didn’t just suffer setbacks; they lost both the House and Senate. It was an overwhelming rejection of GOP rule. Did congressional Republicans “push the panic button”? No, they didn’t change strategies at all.

* In May 2008, Democrats won U.S. House special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi, two of the nation’s “reddest” states. Did Republicans “push the panic button”? No, they didn’t change strategies at all.

* In 2008, Democrats took the White House and expanded their congressional majorities to heights unseen in a generation. After years of witnessing abject failure, the electorate wanted nothing to do with the GOP. Did Republicans “push the panic button”? No, they changed literally nothing about their agenda, ideas, ideology, rhetoric, tone, attitude, or approach to politics.

* Between March 2009 to May 2010, Democrats won seven consecutive U.S. House special elections, including flipping one district Republicans had held for more than a century. Did Republicans “push the panic button”? No, they didn’t change strategies at all.

The difference in the way the two parties handle setbacks is hard to miss. Nothing conveys weakness like running for the hills at the first sign of trouble.

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.