Following their November defeat in the race for both the White House and control of Congress, Democratic leaders remain in curious limbo over the party's future.
They're stuck in a handwringing debate over whether they lost due to a wrong message, such as "moral values" and the Iraq war, or simply wrong tactics, such as not spending enough money in Ohio or choosing the wrong presidential candidate.
Either way, they're pressed to make some corrections soon: Support for the party from Democratic voters has dropped 12 percent since the election.
Still, leaders haven't shifted views on policies. Instead, their post-election actions rather than their words offer some sketchy clues on the party's direction.
Senate Democrats, for instance, elected a new minority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who's anti-abortion but who also vows to be as persistently tough in opposing Republican bills as his predecessor, Tom Daschle, who lost his seat in November. And last week, 12 Senate Democrats voted against the appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of State following the party's decision to stage a two-day floor debate over her role in the Iraq war. Not since 1825 have so many senators voted against a president's nominee for that position.
Both moves reflect a worrisome belief among Democrats that attacking the Republicans is the best way to victory. Some senators who are up for election in 2006 ask, however, if blatant obstructionism rather than bipartisanship and creating new policy stances might hurt their own reelection chances.
The party certainly runs the risk of turning voters off if it persists with such tactics. As party insider James Carville said last week: "The Democratic Party acts more like an accumulation of interest groups than a national party." Instead of pushing a "narrative" of solutions, it pushes a "litany" of complaints, he suggested.
Still, President Bush's narrow victory gives some hope to those who say that better and tougher tactics can win next time. They point to a new poll by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg that found voters don't generally endorse Republican views on domestic issues but voted for George Bush because they didn't want to switch presidents in the middle of a war. And that same poll found that Democrats have a slight edge as having "new ideas for addressing the country's problems."
Still, at least one prominent Democrat appears to be moving toward new policy stances. Both John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, New York Senator and possible 2008 presidential contender, made comments this month reflecting a more moderate position on abortion. Certainly, a broad, middle-of-the-road political approach worked well for her two-term husband, who left behind a moderate party wing known as "Clinton Democrats."
It would be a shame if Democrats failed to pick up on that successful model. Shifting some views toward the middle may keep many hard-core Democratic voters away from the polls, but it could draw in many more independents.
Who should lead the party as it tries to resolve this dilemma of tactics vs. message?
Strangely, the front-runner to become the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee is Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who lost to John Kerry in the primaries last year. With a full endorsement by the DNC's Florida delegation and others, he appears well on his way to winning the position Feb. 12.
Dean's showed himself to be an excellent tactician who took grass-roots organizing and fundraising to extraordinary new levels using the Internet. And he's a warrior who satisfies the GOP bashers in his party.
But though he was more centrist than leftist in his actions as governor, Dean was seen as too liberal in the primaries. And for some party loyalists, Dean's now infamous scream on Iowa caucus night is reason enough not to give him the DNC chair, claiming that shows he's too unpredictable.
Dean's election as DNC chief will probably mean the party would stay to the left and in attack mode, while seeking smarter campaign tactics in the next election. Unless centrist Clinton Democrats rise up soon, the party could be making a big mistake.