Yes, the Democrats have chosen a new leader. Yes, they are officially all about looking ahead, not dwelling on defeat. And yes, they have vowed to take back the White House in 2008. But it's still pretty much of a downer to be a Democrat these days. Just ask Anna Eshoo, who was first elected to the House of Representatives from Atherton, Calif., in 1992.
"We had the triple crown," Eshoo sighed, "all three branches. There was that wonderful, happy sense of all that we would get done, and we had the tools to do it."
And then along came Newt Gingrich in 1994, with his "Contract With America," and ... oh, but who really needs another history lesson right now?
The point is Republicans have consolidated power in the White House, Congress, state legislatures and governors' mansions across the land, and with Bush senior advisor Karl Rove at the controls, are working toward what they have taken to calling a "permanent Republican majority." With the second inauguration of President Bush a fait accompli and gleeful Republicans rubbing liberal noses in his victory, Democrats are struggling mightily to figure out what the party stands for. Part of the job is simply to remain optimistic when the picture is so bleak.
"I do think we need to make lemonade out of lemons," said Democratic strategist Ron Klain, who fled Washington for Mexico during Bush's inauguration. "The good news is his presidency is half over."
Democrats who are not paralyzed by depression are starting to feel pugnacious, particularly after Saturday's election of Howard Dean (the standard-bearer of pugnacious) as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Outgoing DNC chair Terry McAuliffe handed the gavel to Dean, completing the "peaceful transfer of no power" as one TV wag put it.
Predictably, the ascension of Dean, the former Vermont governor, has been mocked by conservatives (some have rubbed their hands in glee, certain that with the volatile Dean leading the party, Democrats are doomed). Rush Limbaugh sniped that Dean was "unifying the party based on the proposition of mainstreaming the kook fringe," echoing last year's memorable anti-Dean commercial in which his supporters were described as a "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show."
Although right-wing talkers may rejoice, plenty of dispirited Democrats are feeling optimistic about the likely tug to the left that Dean will exert on the party. "The thing about Dean is he at least understands what the Democrats' problem is, which would be hard to say about the previous bunch," said Thomas Frank, registered Democrat and author of the bestselling book "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." "They've never understood why they keep losing to the right. They think the answer is to triangulate and compromise. They have this mathematical calculus about where the center is. And Dean seems to understand the folly of that."
Democratic strategist and former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi (who has been deemed a "political prodigy" once a decade since 1980), did not support Dean for DNC chairman, but acknowledged that Democrats have only two options at this point: "You can pull the covers up over your head and be real depressed, or you can get out there and fight. My view is fight."
That stance is echoed by DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera, who joked last month that he was going to spend Jan. 20 running his nails down a chalkboard, which would be "more pleasurable" than listening to the president's inaugural speech.
"The one thing Democrats hate more than getting punched is not punching back," he said. "I think that's the new mood. In the past, the circular firing squad quickly formed, but now I do think the Democrats are much more focused on stopping a Bush agenda than starting an internal debate."
At the top of the Democrats' list is beating back Bush's plan to revamp Social Security, an issue that the Democrats hope will do for them what "Hillarycare" -- the failed Clinton plan for universal health insurance -- did for Republicans back in 1994.
"Let me put it this way," said Frank. "I think Democrats can be fairly certain that if Bush pushes ahead with Social Security privatization that the world will come their way."
Regardless of how the Social Security battle shapes up, there is still the pervasive sense out there that Democrats know what they are against, but have a hard time articulating in compact and digestible prose what they are for.
"I think because the Democratic Party is the party of government, and because government is about the art of the possible, and compromise, it's more difficult for them to articulate things like, 'Yeah, cut taxes,' " said Blair Levin, a telecommunications analyst who was a chief of staff at the FCC during the Clinton administration.