Sam Rayburn, the great 20th-century Democratic speaker of the House, was noted for a line he used on the more obtuse members of his party who failed to learn the lesson of a political setback. "There's no education in the second kick of a mule," he would say.
Wise as that advice might have been for individual legislators, the opposite is true when it comes to Mr. Rayburn's party. Democrats begin to learn their lessons only after they have been beaten twice.
It took two defeats at the hands of Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Democrats to get over their love affair with Adlai Stevenson, finally rejecting their two-time nominee in favor of John F. Kennedy at the Los Angeles convention in 1960.
It took two shellackings by Ronald Reagan for the Democrats to learn that the ticket of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale contained no one who could compete with the former California governor. When Reagan's running mate, George H.W. Bush, reinforced the lesson in 1988, the Democrats got smart and ran Bill Clinton.
Now that they have been beaten for a second time by George W. Bush, what educators call a "teachable moment" is at hand.
For a thoroughly chastised and seemingly clueless party, that is the only good news to be found. And there is one clear lesson the Democrats could learn from examining what helped them recover from those other two-term Republican presidents.
It lies in that old IBM catchword: think.
When Eisenhower won his second term in 1956, the Democratic Party chairman, Paul M. Butler, defied congressional leaders Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson and created the Democratic Advisory Council, a group of wise men from the Roosevelt-Truman years and some up-and-coming governors and back-bench legislators. Together, they formulated the economic and social policies that became the planks of the New Frontier platform. When Kennedy decided to seek the nomination, he joined their effort to promote these ideas.
When Reagan beat Mondale in 1984 even more thoroughly than he had defeated Carter four years before, restless Democrats again broke free from the existing institutional constraints and created the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Clinton became chairman of the DLC, which in turn put the policy meat on the bones of Clinton's New Democrat campaign.
Several Democrats I interviewed in the first couple of days after John Kerry's defeat said it's time to give their party another serious intellectual transfusion. These are not people who think that Hillary Rodham Clinton can revive the Democrats just by sprinkling some Chappaqua fairy dust on their remains. Even those who would happily work for her nomination three years from now recognize that she has Senate duties to fulfill and a New York reelection campaign ahead of her before she can attempt a national rescue mission.
Nor are these people who think that finding a churchgoing Southerner to run next time would solve all their problems. Fewer and fewer Democratic officeholders fit that description, and trends in the region make it harder for new ones to emerge.
But many of those I interviewed agreed with Gerald McEntee, a leader of organized labor's political operations, that outside Washington, a wealth of talent is available to the Democratic Party.
"We have to bring in governors, mayors, state legislative leaders," said the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, "and have a real dialogue."
If the Democratic governors stepped forward to lead this policy effort, they would bring an element of practical wisdom the enterprise badly needs. People such as Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Bill Richardson of New Mexico have demonstrated they know how to win in very competitive environments -- even in states that went for Bush.
Democratic state and local officials have been reluctant to exert their influence as a group in national party affairs. Their Republican counterparts -- especially the governors -- were far more assertive in setting the stage for Bush's 2000 campaign. But with shrunken Democratic contingents in the House and Senate, there is no reason for the governors and mayors to be shy about speaking out.
The Democrats have lost the last two times with people who built their careers in the Senate -- first Al Gore and now Kerry. To paraphrase the Rayburn dictum, "There's no education in the third kick of a mule."