Has there ever been a political party so prone to adolescent crises of insecurity as the Democrats? After every dispiriting election, the Democrats turn themselves into a desperate high school suitor, begging a would-be prom date: "Tell me who you want me to be. I promise I'll change."
Now the Democrats face the bleak prospect of controlling no governmental entity larger than the state of Illinois, unless, of course, liberals still consider Bush buddy Tony Blair an honorary member of their downwardly mobile party. In the weeks since the election, the Democrats have yet again updated their version of the Book of Lamentations.
In mid-December, eight of the contenders for the soon-to-be-vacant throne of Democratic national chairman made their pitches at a party gathering held incongruously at the gates to Disney's Magic Kingdom in Orlando. The five-minute speeches offered a glimpse of the party's wounded psyche as many would-be successors to Terry McAuliffe pandered to the sentiment that the Democrats were on the wrong side of history, moral values and, yes, God's grace.
South Carolina strategist Donnie Fowler, who briefly headed Wesley Clark's presidential campaign, tried to transcend the party's God gap when he boasted, "I am a Democrat because I am a Christian, not in spite of it." (Memo to Fowler: Don't repeat this line at a Barbra Streisand fundraiser). Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who lost a 2002 Texas Senate race, declared, "I know the frustration you feel to be burdened by a national party that you have to run from." Statements like these suggest that the fetal crouch has become the Democrats' natural position. It is safe, comfortable and ever so familiar. Since the 1972 McGovern rout, the Democrats have gone through similar the-end-is-nigh rituals, in 1980, 1984 and 1994. That doesn't count 1988 and 2000, when the party devoted its postelection energy to flagellating its presidential nominee.
Each time the Democrats play Henny Penny, the rhetoric is eerily similar. "The old New Deal coalition has fallen apart like Humpty Dumpty, and we aren't going to put it together again," warned Al From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He uttered those words in 1994 as the party was reeling from the Newt Gingrich revolution, but the analysis dates back to the days when Archie Bunker personified the collapse of the Democrats' blue-collar base.
The benchmark election that destroyed the party's belief in its own destiny was 1980, when incumbent President Carter carried only six states and the Republicans gained 12 Senate seats to take control of a chamber of Congress for the first time since the early 1950s. This was the moment when the Democrats lost their half-century claim to be the natural governing party of the United States because this electoral wipeout could not be blamed on Vietnam or popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower.
Viewing the wreckage, Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas explained: "What happened was that the Democrats, in terms of approach, were still living off the New Deal. And eventually that began to run counter to the realities of the 1970s and '80s." This sack-cloth-and-ashes mood proved to be more than justified because the same 38 states voted Republican in all three presidential elections during the 1980s.
But congenital Democratic pessimism, coupled with familiar demands for the reinvention of the party's message, can lead to hysterical diagnoses.
After the "contract with America" 1994 election in which the GOP took over the House and regained control of the Senate, the Democrats played "The Party's Over" like a dirge.
A chagrined Bill Clinton declared that he had "heard" the voice of the voters, "and I will continue to listen closely to them." Oklahoma Rep. Dave McCurdy, who had lost a 1994 Senate race, said afterward that "the base of the Democratic Party should be middle-class Americans, average working Americans, and if we do not reclaim that base, then I think we're history as a party."
History, of course, recalls that Clinton won a sweeping reelection in 1996 and House Democrats gained seats in the impeachment election of 1998. But after two presidential elections in which the party's test scores were just below the cut-off point for an electoral college majority, most Democrats these days walk around carrying metaphorical window ledges as they debate the wisdom of jumping.
The panic is overstated. The crisis the Democrats face is primarily one of self-confidence. After three decades on the analyst's couch, Democrats should have learned that conservative Republican certainty trumps the plaintive appeals of a party that seems embarrassed by its own principles.