TWO years ago experts across the political spectrum agreed that a Democrat was unlikely to occupy the White House again this century. This view was based on more than George Bush's high approval ratings after the Gulf war.
It was also grounded on what was said to be the Republican Party's "lock" on the electoral college. In this analysis, the GOP had enough unshakable support in the South, the Rocky Mountain states, and parts of the industrial Midwest to guarantee an electoral-college majority, whoever the party's nominee might be.
Well, as one sage put it, on Nov. 3 Bill Clinton picked the lock. He won by making large inroads into the Republicans' base.
The Republicans are in the throes of election post-mortems, recriminations against the press and other outsiders, and finger-pointing at fellow party members as they survey the shambles of their political fortunes. As in 1964 after Lyndon Johnson's landslide win over Barry Goldwater, Republicans must undertake a major reassessment of their political strategy.
The stagnant economy of course contributed heavily to Mr. Clinton's victory. But Republicans will make a mistake if they attribute the defeat solely to economic forces outside their control or to Mr. Bush's failings as a campaigner. The electorate has changed since the GOP clamped its lock onto the electoral college.
For one thing, many more women are involved in politics today. Clinton won decisively with women, especially young working women in whose eyes Republican "family values" haven't translated into programs for families.
Also, the Democrats' gains in the South this year aren't attributable only having two Southerners on the ticket. Many Southern white males - one of the staunchest elements of the GOP's base in recent elections - voted for Clinton. This may indicate that the race card - played subtly by GOP candidates since Richard Nixon forged his "Southern strategy" in 1968 - is losing its effectiveness. Clinton seized a large chunk of the South without significantly playing down his commitment to civil rights.
Beyond needing a new messenger, the Republicans need to rethink their message. Political messages have both text and tone. Much of the text of the GOP message should stay the same: A strong case can be made for such traditional Republican positions as limited government, low taxes, free markets, judicial restraint, individual responsibility, and traditional moral values. In other respects, however, the text must be adjusted to appeal to women, young voters, and other elements of a changing electorate.
Beyond the text, the tone of the Republican message needs to be elevated. Even many Republicans were put off this year by harshness, nativism, and cultural exclusionism in GOP rhetoric. Limited government doesn't have to mean uncaring government; individual responsibility and welfare reform don't have to be code terms for hostility toward the largely black urban poor; support of moral values needn't translate into homophobia or radical opposition to reproductive choice.
Republican factions are arming for a battle over the "soul" of the party. Some purists have vowed to "purge" members who don't hew to various orthodoxies. That's the wrong direction for the party. A Republican Party made "pure" either by supply-side economic conservatives or by religious-right social conservatives is destined for a long sojourn in the political wilderness.
Only a center-right, big-tent Republican Party, true to its principles but with a message of hope for many elements of America's changing populace, stands a chance to challenge the coalition Bill Clinton fashioned this year.