All of this takes place against a historical backdrop in which Democrats have struggled to win the presidency since World War II, says historian Rick Shenkman, editor of George Mason University's History News Network. Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter barely squeaked out victories. Bill Clinton had Ross Perot scrambling the equation in 1992 and never won a majority of the vote. Only Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide stands out as a resounding victory, Shenkman said.
"That tells you that this is a conservative country. It's not a country that normally elects Democrats," he said.
The Democrats have to decide whether to reinvent themselves, he said. In 1928, the Democrats may have lost to Republican Herbert Hoover, but they stuck to their ideological grounds and waited for the country to come back to the party. In 1988, when Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush, many Democrats decided to shift to the right, spawning the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the "Third Way" politics of Clinton.
"The Democrats have to decide if this is 1928 or 1988," Shenkman said.
In his concession speech yesterday, Kerry urged his supporters to try to work with Republicans to solve the nation's problems. But he also said they should stick to what they believe in. Compromise or stay firm? Democrats have some hard thinking ahead.
Tuesday afternoon they thought they were winning, just as they thought they were winning four years ago (and still think they won). The exit polls looked so good for the Democrats this time. Some of the numbers were astounding -- Kerry up 20 points in Pennsylvania! Even conservative Virginia, a sure lock for Bush, appeared to be in play. "Kerry Leading" said the headline of one online publication.
But it turned out to be Lucy teeing up the football and asking Charlie Brown to kick it.
Kerry will surely take some lumps for his various imperfections as a candidate. He was hard to know, harder to love. But he had the want-to, kept moving forward, proved himself a political thoroughbred in the hardest race of all. Even late on Election Day, the senator kept campaigning, hooked up by satellite phone from his hotel room in Boston, hoarsely cultivating the final stalks of support among the amber waves of voters. No one can doubt that John Forbes Kerry really wanted to be president.
At some point during Election Night -- a temporal span stretching from 7 p.m. Tuesday to about 11 a.m. yesterday, when Kerry called Bush to concede -- the Democrats realized that exit polls don't count. Reporters realized that the interviews they'd been conducting on the premise of a Kerry administration or the political significance of young voters (the Youthquake!) were now about as valuable as a Walter Mondale position paper.
As the hard numbers rolled in, the Democratic National Committee party at the Capital Hilton began to deflate, as though somewhere along the way the event had run over a nail.
By midnight Kerry could no longer be credited with that marvelous attribute, sanctioned long ago in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, of "electability." Close doesn't count. He'd get the L instead of the W. Bottom line, they might as well have nominated Howard Dean.
Republicans had their own endless night, full of anxiety and equivocation and irritation. Even as the news got better, no one wanted to be so incautious as to gloat about the evidence of an impending victory. But just before 1 o'clock in the morning, Fox News called Ohio for Bush. People let loose and began a celebration. Jack Frommer of San Diego took off his tie, opened a button on his shirt and put on his cowboy hat.
"To be honest, I'd been thinking, if this doesn't go our way I was going to get down on my knees and pray," he said. "Because the country does not understand an honest man when they see one, does not understand morals when they see them. Now I have faith, in Florida, in Ohio, in America. Thank God. We're on the right track."
Yesterday afternoon, a couple hundred people gathered on 14th Street, outside the Ronald Reagan Building, to cheer the president as he came to deliver his victory speech. There were no Kerry supporters in sight, only one guy with an anti-Bush sign about a block away. The legions of people who had devoted themselves to defeating the president had lost heart and gone home, if they had not been rounded up and jailed.