Democrats, Proceed Cautiously

In the week since their deflating defeat at the polls, Democrats have been ruminating over what went wrong and how to do better next time.

Their assessments range all over the map. Some Democrats, like Jesse Jackson, advocate more liberalism. Others, such as Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, wonder how Democrats got tagged as "a party without values." James Carville, that ragin' Cajun who advised both John Kerry and Bill Clinton, laments that his party ceded the South.

Amid the valleys of disappointment and the mountains of polling data, Democrats should be careful not to overreact.

For starters, they did a lot of things better this time than in 2000. They were more unified, raised more money from small donors, and got out more votes.

The lessons-learned exercise also has its limits. Every election is unique. In 2000, it was the son of a president vs. a vice president tainted by his boss's personal scandal, running in a period of peace and prosperity. This time, it was an incumbent with a clear message vs. a senator with a sometimes mixed one at a time of war and a weak economy. Who knows what four years hence will bring?

This election was close, which should caution the Democrats against making abrupt ideological changes. Lurching left at a time when the country appears to be moving in the opposite direction would be a mistake.

They should deal carefully with the hot debate topic to emerge from this election: moral values. Exit polls showed one-fifth of voters said "moral values" most influenced their choice, and the overwhelming majority of those voters backed Bush. But about a fifth of voters also said that jobs and the economy were most important, and they mostly went for Kerry.

Should Democrats suddenly veer right, based on an undefined, highly subjective term that polled equally with jobs? Far more advisable would be for them to find better, more inclusive ways to communicate their core values on everything from helping the poor to ensuring civil and personal rights to not burdening future generations with huge debts.

Because of its complexity, the "message" job may be harder and take more thought than the most obvious task ahead: taking the fight to "red" (i.e., rural and Republican) America.

After three consecutive election losses (including the last mid-terms), the Democrats can no longer afford to be noncompetitive in GOP territory.

If there's a clear lesson to be learned, it's that the next Democratic nominee will have to come from GOP-land: the middle or south of the country. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter got that right.

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