What Happens to the Losing Team?

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CALLIE SHELL / AURORA FOR TIME

HILLARY CLINTON Though a polarizing figure nationwide, the New York Senator is popular in the party

Coming after the 2000 cliffhanger and a negative, hard-fought campaign, it's no surprise that John Kerry's loss would leave Democrats deflated and searching for answers. "We had the money, we had a ground operation the likes of which has never been seen, and we had a good candidate who stood toe to toe with the President and bested him in three debates," sighs Harold Ickes, who ran two of the cash-rich outside groups that sprang up in this election to help the Democrats contend with the G.O.P. fund-raising advantage. "We had all that, and we still lost. People are going to ask, 'What do we have to do?' There's going to be a real aftershock."

With aftershock there usually comes second-guessing and recrimination. Picking over the tactical blunders and missed opportunities is a tradition in any post-election recovery. But political parties tend to make major course corrections only in the wake of catastrophe. That's what happened after the 1988 race, when the elder Bush eviscerated the hapless Michael Dukakis to deliver the G.O.P. a third straight electoral landslide. Out of the ashes of that defeat and a struggle between the party's liberal and moderate wings arose a Bible-citing, charisma-infused Southern moderate named Bill Clinton, who went on to give the Democrats their only presidential triumphs in a generation. Having lost two close and winnable elections in a row since the Clinton era ended, is it time for the Democrats to engage in another round of intraparty bloodletting before they settle into the task of selecting their nominee for 2008?

It depends on which Democrat you ask. "In the 1980s, we got hit by a political 2-by-4," says Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which helped launch Clinton on his way to the White House in 1992. "This election was a whole lot more complicated. It was so close that it's unlikely to be a learning experience for Democrats. I suspect there'll be more finger pointing than soul searching. And that's a shame." For Reed and other so-called New Democrats who struggle to keep the party from veering too far to the left, Kerry was a vast improvement over Howard Dean, who rode a wave of antiwar and anti-Bush sentiment to prominence before crashing in the primaries. But, insists Reed, Kerry should have run a better campaign. "We can't let George Bush define our future. That's where the Dean and Kerry campaigns both came up short," he says ruefully. "Democrats need to put forward our vision of how to win the war on terror. Defeating terrorism is going to be the defining issue for years to come. For our party's sake and our country's sake, we have to get it right because Americans won't take us seriously until we do."

Because the election was so close and because the war in Iraq and loathing of Bush were the chief propellants fueling the Democrats' campaign, party professionals and activists seem disinclined to engage in much self-criticism while Bush remains in the White House. "The threat posed by Bush unified the party," says Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group. "And he'll continue to unify Democrats in a second term." It was the willingness of Dean and progressive organizations like MoveOn.org to attack the Republican President and his policies directly, adds Borosage, that "gave the Democratic Party its voice and its will to win. The progressives come out of this emboldened by what they were able to do. They feel like they have the power to change politics."

The capacity of independent nonparty organizations like MoveOn, Americans Coming Together and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now to raise money and mobilize anti-Bush voters has acted like a fresh rain on the Democratic Party's parched grass roots. Even though the Democratic candidate lost, the party and the broader network of liberal, anti-Bush organizations succeeded in raising record sums of money and enlisting unprecedented numbers of volunteers. Far from being distraught and depressed by the election, the way they were after 2000, many Democrats sound surprisingly upbeat about the future.

"If there is some upside to people's lack of passion for Kerry, it's that this campaign was all about a struggle for a fundamentally different direction for the country from where the conservatives are taking it," says John Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff who last year launched a progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, modeled on the successful think tanks created around the conservative movement in the 1970s and '80s. "When a campaign is about the person, in defeat the whole thing collapses. That's not going to happen because this feels more like movement politics."

And instead of harping on what Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, calls "the same debate Democrats have been having for 20 years—should we be more populist or more centrist?"—activists from various factions may focus on working together against a common enemy. "Just because they lost, these people are not going to be any more disposed toward the Republican Party," says Teixeira. "We're seeing the emergence of a new Democratic Party. It's more pragmatic and less ideological. And it's unified in its desire to defeat a Republican Party that's widely viewed as stopping at nothing to crush the opposition."

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