Next Steps for Democrats

It didn't take long for Democrats to start shaking up their ranks after their round of defeats in Tuesday's elections. House minority leader Dick Gephardt's expected resignation shows the party is taking its losses seriously, as it should.

But charges and recriminations go only so far.

Beyond holding various party leaders responsible for failing to craft vote-catching messages lies the problem of having a message at all.

Criticizing Republican messages only goes so far, as did an attempt to tag the president as the cause of a limp economy. And relying on traditional voter bases, such as teacher and government-worker unions, only further masks the Democrats as the party of entrenched entitlements. With a half-dozen presidential wannabes singing different tunes, the party lacks a single strong leader carrying forward a singular message.

Both parties suffer from extreme ideologues on their respective left and right. But somehow, under President Bush, Republicans have had better "message agreement," along with a leader whose campaigning proved very effective.

Democrats still hold a large minority in both the House and Senate, and can come together before choosing a presidential candidate in 2004 to define simple, proactive policies that will effectively engage Republicans in shaping legislation and challenging the Bush administration.

Of course, the Republicans are in high cotton, and no doubt will begin pushing forward their agenda, which includes moving a number of judicial nominations held up until now by a Senate under Democratic control. In fact, all the Republicans need is seven critical federal circuit court appointments, and they'll have a majority on all but two of 13 circuit courts. (See story.)

Departing majority leader Tom Daschle speaks of Democrats "rising from the ashes." That's just what the Democrats can now do, even as the clock ticks toward 2004. But it will mean reconciling their "left" and "center" camps, and focusing more on where the nation should go and less on where it shouldn't.

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