Donkey in distress

Defeated Democrats are bickering over whether victory lies in embracing the center or the left. But a majority party needs to do both.

Published November 18, 2002 11:41AM (EST)

There was so much bad news for Democrats in the 2002 election results, it's hard to say what's worst. To me it's that almost two weeks later, nobody's come up with a convincing explanation for the party's defeat, let alone a road map back to majority. Al Gore finally came out swinging Friday, talking courageously to Barbara Walters about the way the Supreme Court took the 2000 election away from him, but he's only about 18 months late. The 2004 primary season is almost upon us, but confusion prevails about why Democrats lost in 2002. The left is blaming the center, centrists are blaming the left, and it feels eerily like the first Democratic debacle I covered professionally -- the 1984 election, when Walter Mondale got trounced by Ronald Reagan -- complete with Mondale losing again.

I spent that election season hunkered down at a left-wing newsweekly in Chicago, where I learned everything I know about the Democratic Party, and what it needs to do to win elections. It's not what you think. Even though In These Times was a lefty paper, there was a lot of smart, pragmatic thinking about politics. (You'll see that "smart" and "pragmatic" don't modify "the left" very often in my thinking, even though I consider myself part of it.) Those were the years just before and after the Mondale-Reagan election, when optimism battled with despair among lefties. Some folks were still waiting for the uprising that was supposed to begin when Reagan cut social programs, that would move the country toward socialism, but we weren't. My job was covering emerging Democratic constituencies, mainly women and minorities, as well as promising strategies to boost voter participation and turnout among women, blacks, welfare recipients, students, workers. Covering them critically, but respectfully. Also on staff was John B. Judis, now of the New Republic, to remind me and our readers, critically, respectfully, that none of those efforts would add up to a majority for Democrats anytime soon.

Of course Judis was right. I got sent to San Francisco for the 1984 convention, where I covered the historic Geraldine Ferraro nomination, Mario Cuomo's and Jesse Jackson's thrilling speeches, the whole moving cavalcade of liberalism that would tag the party with the epithet that still stings almost 20 years later: "San Francisco Democrats." And in the end, those Democrats got their butts kicked. I remember Judis being smart about two things in particular: that the so-called gender gap favoring Democrats, which led Mondale to pick the flawed Ferraro as his running mate, had to be at least partly understood as men defecting from the party, not merely women rejecting Republicans; and that the various voter mobilization strategies employed that year would fail to make a difference. The numbers they mobilized just weren't that great, and they were based on a faulty premise, anyway: that nonvoters represent some vast, untapped Democratic constituency. In fact, polls that year -- and every other year I've looked at -- showed that nonvoters, had they bothered to cast ballots, would have voted much the way the existing electorate did.

Judis had a great one-liner that stayed with me: The Democrats had to give up trying to find "quantitative solutions to qualitative problems" -- the quantitative solution being voter-turnout strategies, the quality problem being, well, the Democrats themselves, the candidates and their message that election. Clearly the party was losing voters, not mobilizing them, with what played during the campaign as pessimism, attention to special interests over the national interest, and the lack of a compelling plan for American security in a complex, hostile world. Sound familiar? Yes, lots about the 2002 midterm election was familiar. And just as voters preferred Reagan's "morning in America" appeal, the clarity of his "evil empire" rhetoric about our enemies, and sunny, lazy optimism about the mounting deficit, which would never, ever require a tax hike, so too did voters this year embrace the tough talk and gleaming platitudes of a smiling cowboy president who was always on the offensive.

This year, though, it was Judis, not I, who was charting the role women, minorities and other underdeveloped constituencies would play in reviving the Democratic Party, in the influential book he co-authored with Ruy Teixeira, "The Emerging Democratic Majority." Judis and Teixeira called that new majority "McGovern's revenge," showing how the groups the liberal South Dakotan opened the party to in 1972 (while he was being trounced by Richard Nixon) would pay him back by electing Democrats 30 years later. They could almost as easily have called it "Mondale's revenge." It's more than just women, minorities and urban voters -- the new majority, according to Judis and Teixeira, also includes professionals, a formerly Republican constituency that's grown, gotten more diverse, and has been turned off by right-wing rhetoric as well as the erosion of their standard of living (Mondale was the first Democrat to make inroads among professionals), and even suburban voters living around what they call "ideopolises," sprawling intellectual centers from Silicon Valley, Calif., to Madison, Wis., home to a knowledge class that's edging out the working class in numbers and importance.

So what happened to that Democratic majority in this past election? It's a testament to Judis and Teixeira's sobriety and seriousness -- they're widely respected, even by the center-right -- that "The Emerging Democratic Majority" didn't become a derisive punchline, shorthand for Democratic hubris, given the Republican sweep Nov. 5. The Weekly Standard's David Brooks, the conservative liberals can have over to dinner, even found a way to praise the book while dumping on Democrats in the New York Times last weekend. The fact is, the book didn't predict an immediate new world order of Democratic dominance. It merely pointed to the building blocks of a Democratic majority -- it was the party that was supposed to put it together, and didn't, this time around. Maybe the book's title was misleading: Perhaps Democrats thought the majority was going to "emerge" on its own, grab party leaders and march them into power.

Of course, the party had to reach out and grab its majority, and Democrats didn't do that. Parts of its traditional base -- especially black voters, labor and the poor -- were never mobilized, and though Democrats kept a slight edge with independent voters and professionals, the advantage wasn't as strong as it was in 2000, and they lost badly in many suburbs they had won last time around. Even more galling, the GOP went to town with those voter mobilization strategies I was writing about in 1984. Turnout, while still appallingly low, was up slightly this year -- from 37.6 percent in 1998 to 39.3 percent of the voting-age population, says the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate -- but the increase apparently came from Republican districts. Bush svengali Karl Rove and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed made Republicans born-again believers in registration drives and precinct walking and getting out the vote, so on top of their advantages in money and media, Bush's party had election-day mobilization as well.

Two weeks later, Democrats have mostly blamed one another for the loss, though there's a line of thinking that insists defeat was inevitable given Bush's wartime popularity. It's like 1984 all over again -- the left complaining the base wasn't adequately mobilized, the center warning that a sharp turn left will doom Democrats to irrelevance -- without that mocking Kool and the Gang soundtrack ("Celebrate good times, c'mon!"). Can anything be learned from this latest defeat, not to mention all those earlier ones?

One thing is obvious: The party has to work to build a Democratic majority, not simply wait for it to emerge, and it needs both its center and its left to do that. I feel silly stating the obvious, except it's apparently not self-evident to the two wings of the party, who are still taking daily potshots at one another, most recently over the election of "San Francisco Democrat" Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader. Democrats need a center that's courageous and inclusive, and a left that wants to be relevant, not merely righteous -- and at this moment, it has neither. They still have almost two years to get it together, if they want to build a majority in '04, but the clock is ticking, loudly.

The 2002 results shocked many Democrats not only because they read the Judis-Teixeira book lazily. They also trusted in the law of midterm elections -- that the sitting president's party always loses House and Senate seats two years into his term. That midterm shift, which has hit every Republican president since Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, and virtually every Democrat since then, has come to seem a law of nature, like gravity; the electorate's instinctive, self-protective reflex designed to make sure neither party can do too much damage.

But Bush isn't the first modern president to defy the midterm-election-loss law. In fact, the last guy whose party gained seats in the midterm was the very last president, Bill Clinton. In 1998, he watched Democrats gain ground in a congressional election that was supposed to smite him for Monica Lewinsky, but instead punished his enemies. The GOP recovered from that setback by muzzling some of its attack dogs, purging House Speaker Newt Gingrich and nominating in 2000 an affable Southern governor whose ability to pull its party's center and right together, to be "a uniter, not a divider," made him rather like Clinton.

Two consecutive midterm gains by the sitting president's party does not reverse a century-long trend in the opposite direction. But it does tell us something. Clinton learned from his '94 midterm loss that he needed to move to the center; in those next years he signed a GOP welfare reform bill and left his worthy but ill-organized healthcare plans in the rearview mirror. Republicans learned the same lesson from their setback four years later, thanks to overreaching by Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde and Kenneth Starr, and reined in some of their nut-jobs, replacing the polarizing Gingrich with mild-mannered Speaker Dennis Hastert. There's been no realignment of the American electorate in those years; what's been realigned are the parties, to meet almost in the middle. It will be a while before the meaning of this midterm is understood, but some lessons already are clear.

One thing defeat will almost certainly teach Democrats is that it's time for them, at long last, to accept Bush's presidency. And that's a good thing. The notion that the smirking GOP scion didn't win in 2000 (the American people voted for us, damn it!) brought out the worst traits in liberals and the left: self-pity and self-righteousness, the trademark delusional arrogance that the American people really, really want to vote for us, but somebody -- the media, the big corporations, Karl Rove, the guys who killed Paul Wellstone -- won't let them. I still believe the Supreme Court's decision to stop the Florida recount was a partisan outrage and that history will call it that many years from now. If Gore had come out swinging in the first few months afterward, he might have changed the course of Democratic Party history -- grabbing a platform to energize the party's base and critique Bush in that first stumbling year pre-9/11.

But he didn't. And two years of listening to other Democrats complain about 2000 convinced me it bred passivity and entitlement -- a sense that the "emerging Democratic majority" is out there, and we'll get 'em next time. Knowing he needed legitimacy, Bush used this election to fight for it, and he won. Democrats who counted on anger from the dastardly 2000 loss buoying the party this year -- think clueless Terry McAuliffe, with his macho bluster about taking down Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as payback -- lost big.

OK, OK, it's true; by the numbers the Democrats didn't lose big. A lot of folks are trying to stave off intraparty mayhem by calmly noting that the Democrats' losses were small: two Senate seats and five House seats, while they gained three statehouses. Indeed, a shift of roughly 73,000 votes -- the GOP's margin of victory in Missouri and Minnesota -- could have saved Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's job. And that competitive showing came against a president whose popularity was inflated by the Sept. 11 attacks and the threat of war with Iraq, who traversed the country campaigning for Republicans, staking his presidency on a strong GOP showing, while his party outspent Democrats roughly 3-1.

Yet any liberal who insists the loss was politically unimportant, a mere bump on the road to that "emerging Democratic majority," should be sentenced to a lifetime as the minority party: living under elderly Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (he'll only get meaner with age) and Presidents Jeb, George P. and Jenna Bush, with an increasingly demented McAuliffe insisting biannually that this is the year we win Florida. The losses came at a time Democrats rightly expected to gain seats in Congress. Not merely because of the usual midterm bounce, but also because the sputtering economy, along with near-daily corporate scandals, should have worked in the party's favor, especially given Bush's own corporate ties, his pro-business, anti-regulatory rhetoric and his reward-the-rich economic program. Not to mention that he didn't even win the popular vote two years ago. I promise to try never to mention that again, though it will be tough. In this context, it still matters, because Bush didn't go into the midterm with a lock on the electoral college map, which can help especially with Senate seats, nor with the alpha dog invulnerability of a big winner.

Of course, while some Democrats are trying to minimize the import of their losses, certain Republicans are learning the wrong lesson, too, claiming a mandate for conservatism. As always, the Democrats' best hope for a comeback is that the GOP misplays its hand, and conservatives are certainly giddy enough to blow it. It's no longer a deadlocked 50-50 nation, they cry, it's ... 53-47! Compare that to '84, when Republicans trounced Democrats 58-41. But the GOP's right wing is restless. "This Republican Congress was elected because of the pro-life vote, and they need to heed that vote," Family Research Council director Ken Connor told the Washington Post last week; Lott promised to move on a partial-birth abortion bill as soon as he got his job back from Daschle.

Still, Democrats can't stand around waiting for Republicans to self-destruct. That's the Terry McAuliffe way, and let's hope it costs him his job. But even among those lamenting the midterm loss, there are bogus explanations that will, if they become conventional wisdom, set the party back, not forward.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who should know better, is recycling a litany of tired Democratic complaints from the 1980s to explain why Republicans won this time around. Debating centrist Joe Klein in the pages of Slate, Reich whines that Bush and his friends won because they "have a network of conservative think tanks, a boatload of money to market the ideas that emerge from them, and spokespeople to sell them." This is what we said under Reagan: Oh, the big bad Heritage Foundation. Oy, the American Enterprise Institute, Cato, Manhattan. We're losing the battle of ideas! Twenty years and many, many millions of dollars later, the Democrats have think tanks -- the Progressive Policy Institute, the Economic Policy Institute, the Institute for America's Future. They have Web sites, spokespeople, magazines -- old standbys like the New Republic and Washington Monthly, newcomers like the DLC's Blueprint and Reich's own struggling American Prospect. (Though nobody can argue the Democrats are winning the media battle, not when the Bush administration has its own cable network, Fox News, and its competitors are moving right to compete with it.) But even with all that new intellectual firepower, Democrats are still losing elections they should win.

Reich also disputes the notion that Democrats have to battle Republicans for swing voters in the political center to stage a comeback. In fact, the idea makes him want to "puke," the plain-talking Reich tells Klein: "Most Americans who are eligible to vote don't even bother most of the time," he notes. "The party of non-voters is larger than either Republican or Democrat."

Ah, there it is again: the comforting fiction that there's a vast army of nonvoters out there who would vote Democratic if only ... if only ... Reich isn't really sure. He's too smart to call for a sharp turn left, but he'd really like to see ... a turn left. Somebody better get Reich a barf bag, because the big prize is, and for the time being will continue to be, independents and swing voters who comprise that contested middle.

Yet centrists let the Democrats down this year, too. Democratic Leadership Council founder Al From warned Nancy Pelosi last week not to drag the party left. "Pelosi, who's not a part of the New Democrat movement, if she wants to become speaker, will have to lead ... the New Democrat way," From warned darkly in remarks to the Washington Post. "We have not been able to win with the old message of prescription drugs and never touching Social Security."

That's certainly true. But honestly, I can't think of any group more responsible for forcing the Democrats onto the arid terrain of prescription drugs and duelling Social Security plans in this last election than From's. DLC chair Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana uttered perhaps the most craven words of the campaign season when he told the New York Times Democrats should support Bush's Iraq plans because polls showed voters thought they were weak on defense: "The majority of the American people tend to trust the Republican Party more on issues involving national security and defense than they do the Democratic Party," he said. "We need to work to improve our image on that score by taking a more aggressive posture with regard to Iraq, empowering the president." War as image making; is it any wonder voters told pollsters they didn't know what the Democrats believe in?

Three things hurt the Democrats badly this past campaign, and they were the result of a dysfunctional interplay between the center and the left. Playing politics, disastrously, with the Iraq vote, sending mixed messages about repealing the regressive Bush tax cut, and finally, when it decided to fight on something, choosing to protect public employee unions from some hurtful provisions of Bush's homeland security bill. It was a stunning combination of cowardice, failed opportunism and pandering in just a few months.

The Iraq evasion was the most damaging. Democrats appeared to have caved to Bush not to make the world safe for democracy, but to make it safe for Democrats in close races, placing the lives of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians second to the goal of recapturing Congress. In fact, Democrats might have coalesced around a reasonable alternative to the Bush plan: a push to work through the U.N. Security Council, and if U.N. pressure on Saddam failed, to support military force. That's what most Democrats supported, anyway, and what was ultimately forced on Bush by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and France and Russia. But Democrats got no credit for what could have been a winning position, because they were afraid to take it, afraid it might have made them look soft on Saddam, a little too Carter-Mondale. It was easier to give Bush what he wanted, and rush home to their districts to debate prescription drugs.

And yet, after party leaders decided to go hawkish on Iraq, it made no sense that Democrats couldn't bend on the civil-service protections in the homeland security bill. It made it look as though their union supporters were more important that the aforementioned soldiers and civilians. Having caved on Iraq, they handed Bush an issue he could use to question their patriotism anyway, and he ran with it. In Georgia, GOP challenger Saxby Chambliss, who avoided military service, knocked off Sen. Max Cleland, a war veteran and triple amputee, for being soft on national security. The Democrats' vexing political wimpiness helped defeat Cleland, too. Why the incumbent was unable to crush Chambliss for such an awful smear will always baffle me; Terry McAuliffe should have abandoned his futile macho grudge match with Jeb Bush and poured every penny he had into Georgia.

On the tax cut, Democrats got pulled into Bush's false terms of debate on the issue, and party leaders never found a way out. It was tough to craft one message on it, since some Democrats voted to support the president's plan. (Note to the left: There's not a single Senate seat where coming out boldly to repeal the Bush tax cut would have gained the party ground, and there are several, most notably South Dakota, where such a move clearly would have lost a seat.) But it was a mistake for Democrats to get suckered into Bush's terms of debate in the first place. They should have been gung ho for tax cuts during this recession, but tax cuts for the middle and working classes -- payroll tax cuts, tuition tax credits, rebates that would give more disposable income to folks who'd spend it and goose the economy. That was a middle ground that would have been intellectually honest, fiscally responsible and politically smart, and might have postponed the question of repealing the reward-the-rich Bush tax cuts, which take effect later, until later.

But the vise of the tax-cut question speaks to a way New Democrats helped the party in the '90s but hamstring it now: They helped make the balanced budget central to the Democratic agenda, the one clear victory of the Clinton era, and that's neither a winning political formula nor a useful economic plan during a recession.

There's no denying Clinton's fiscal discipline was crucial to his political success, and a factor behind the economic boom he presided over. It convinced the electorate, and the business community, that Democrats weren't just about taxing and spending. It kept the government from competing with the private sector to borrow money, and helped create the conditions for the boom of the 1990s. Yet "Rubinomics," as Republicans now call it derisively, after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, got more credit than it deserved for the boom years, which had a lot to do with the technology surge and productivity increases that are now history, and won't be brought back by a pledge to eliminate the deficit. Now it's Republicans who say the need for a balanced budget is overrated, and Democrats who preach fiscal discipline. But it's hard to be the party of discipline at a time when discipline only means sacrifice. Between the political damage wreaked by Jimmy Carter's sweater-wearing lectures on malaise, and Walter Mondale's tax-hike pledge, Democrats should have learned 20 years ago that sacrifice alone is a pretty unappealing platform for a majority party.

Besides the great gift of a booming economy, Clinton had enormous political advantages Democratic leaders today don't enjoy. (Pay no attention to the wild ravings of Sally Quinn in the Washington Post, insisting the Democrats' loss represented a repudiation of Clinton. In a season marked by awful analyses of the Democrats' defeat, Quinn's stands out as one of the worst. Clearly, without Clinton to kick around, she has nothing to say.) Clinton saved the party from another generation of irrelevance by pulling together its center and left. He had the personal charisma and the appeal with the Democratic base to convince restive minorities, labor, the poor and their advocates to trust him: that sometime down the road, discipline would lead to investment in the things they cared about: expanded health insurance, child care and education spending, a market-driven set of programs the country has failed to invest in.

But Democrats never got down that road. Thanks in part to the Lewinsky scandal, in part to his own political caution, Clinton never mustered the political capital, or the nerve, to make bold investments that would convince the base that sacrifice led to rewards down the line -- the delayed gratification that DLC types like to preach about. He rehabilitated the idea of government, but hardly managed to muster its power on anybody's behalf (besides laudable but stealthy boosts in the Earned Income Tax Credit and college tuition programs that only wonks knew about). So after eight years of fiscal discipline, there was little payoff -- and then, suddenly, there was no Clinton. And here we are.

The DLC wing has yet to yield another politician who can bridge the gap between its left and center, though it has high hopes for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Let's hope Edwards realizes what others in his camp don't seem to: Sure, it's conventional wisdom that a lefty platform won't make the Democrats a majority party, and it's true -- but the wonky, know-it-all, castor-oil DLC appeal can't do it alone, either. It might have more success with independents, but it loses the left. There's no emerging majority that way.

Is there any hope for reconciliation? Not if the left listens to bad advice. The Nation thinks its readers should take a page from supporters of conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who got trounced by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. "He lost huge but gave the GOP the sense of conviction that led to its ascendancy," the magazine says. That's a common comforting fantasy, but it's wrong. The GOP's ascendancy came from its savvy about how to put together a winning governing coalition, not its ideological purity.

Likewise, lots of lefties point to the Christian right as a model, without understanding what the religious conservative movement is modeling for them. "Republicans have always paid respect to the Christian right with their position on abortion," Green Party leader Dean Myerson told Salon's Michelle Goldberg. "We don't get similar respect from Democrats." But of course, the Christian right went inside the GOP, while the Green Party abandoned the Democrats. Look at Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, who turned a group of zealots into a political force to be reckoned with, tied it to the GOP, and then took his energy inside the party, becoming the chair of the Georgia Republicans, who's now widely credited with that state's devastating defeats to Democrats. There's no comparable figure or constituency on the left. If there's a model for the left's rehabilitation, it's not the GOP post-Goldwater but post-Gingrich, when the right learned from its drubbing.

"The Democratic Party needs a left, but it doesn't need the left," sighed John Judis, when I called to get his wisdom about this year's Democratic mess, 18 years after he helped me understand the last Mondale loss. "It doesn't need the Ramsey Clark crazy people. And the Greens are exactly what isn't needed. It has to be people who understand American politics -- that we have a two-party system and there aren't three choices -- there are two."

The Democrats' only post-election move of import -- electing Nancy Pelosi House minority leader last Thursday -- is being widely hailed as a sign the party did interpret its loss as a signal to turn left, but I think that's been misunderstood. It's understandable the GOP would savage Pelosi -- calling her a "latte liberal" and reviving the "San Francisco Democrat" slur (which manages to be slyly homophobic), but it's a little icky to see Democrats do it too. Not only Al From but DLC supporters like Joe Klein piled on last week. A New Republic editorial predicted she'd be a disaster leading a caucus that's already too far to the left, adding this howler: "Just look at the effect that caucus had on Gephardt, once a pro-life, conservative Democrat." Blaming liberals for corrupting Gephardt is as fair as blaming altar boys for corrupting wayward priests. C'mon now, guys.

But the Greens don't like Pelosi either. "There is no real hope among Greens that Pelosi in leadership will mean a significant improvement in Democratic policy," the party's steering committee co-chair Ben Manski told Goldberg. That doesn't hurt Pelosi -- she can use the quote to defend herself from Republican smears -- but it shows the Greens' lame political judgment and commitment to political irrelevance.

I have no idea whether Nancy Pelosi will be a great minority leader, but I'd put money on her doing a better job than Gephardt. I expect her to disappoint the left, because that's her job. Already she picked a conservative as her top deputy, a sign she knows coalition is the only future for the party. Let's hope critics on her left and right figure that out as well.

Democrats will continue to lose if they don't build a platform that pulls together their majority. Some elements are clear: They need an aggressive economic program that involves an anti-recession stimulus package; they need to attack the Bush tax cuts less because they'll lead to deficits than because they give money to folks who don't need it and won't spend it. (Typical of their disastrous political maneuvering, the Democrats added the most popular feature of the Bush tax cut -- last year's rebate -- but never got credit for it.) They've also got to begin to address the unfinished business of the Clinton era, particularly the ever-growing healthcare crisis, which has enormous economic costs. Al Gore's big plan to back a single-payer plan already has New Democrats sniping, but at least he's revived a debate.

Much tougher for Democrats, especially the left, will be developing a national security program that's realistic about the many threats the country faces, but avoids the swaggering unilateralism of the Bush administration. Sadly, in this election Democrats weren't able to make clear the ways the Bush approach increases the danger the U.S. faces rather than reducing it. But defining a Democratic alternative is going to be a particularly tough process on the left. The peacenik fringe that defends Saddam and other dictators and blames America for 9/11 is probably beyond redemption. But there are healthy and reasonable disagreements about the pros and cons of invading Iraq, whether the U.S. should take a more active role in brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians, what kind of relations we should have with crucial but flawed regimes like Saudi Arabia, how to approach Pakistan, and so on. There will be debate about these things within the caucus, and between the '04 candidates, and that's healthy. But the party needs to acknowledge that its foreign policy and national security agenda is as important as its domestic agenda in the post-Sept. 11 world. Clinton got a break there too -- the fall of the Soviet Union took national security off the list of voter concerns for a while -- but it's back.

If these days feel like déjà vu for defeated Democrats, oddly enough history seems to be repeating itself for ascendant Republicans, too. It's really kind of eerie: There's a Bush in the White House, a troubled economy, mounting deficits, restive religious zealots and right-wingers, and a Gulf War looming on the horizon too. So even with all of the party's problems, it's no time for Democrats to despair. In 2004, they'll get another shot, maybe a clearer shot, at putting together the Democratic majority that shimmered on the horizon, a mirage, in this election. Let's hope they're ready to make the most of the opportunity when it comes.

Additional reporting on this story was done by Laura McClure.

By Joan Walsh

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