WASHINGTON -- The sound of head-scratching coming from Democratic circles will likely be as much a part of autumn as the rustle of leaves. Walloped on Election Day, top Democrats are dazed, dispirited and confused, wondering how they allowed Republicans to make opposition to abortion and gay marriage synonymous with "moral values." Exit polls suggest that as much as 80 percent of voters who agree with that definition voted for Bush.
Inside the party, discussions of strategy and future plans are under way, many of them aimed at luring those precious "values voters" in future elections. Already there is talk of re-examining core principles, being more open about the importance of faith, restoring the party's ties to the heartland and distancing it from the so-called cultural elites.
One top Democrat, Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, said there's a lesson to be learned from the exit poll numbers. "Any time a party does better with non-churchgoing people than with churchgoing people, you've got a problem," he said.
There will also be attempts to reach out to rural voters, many of whom regard the Democrats as arrogant and out-of-touch. The party will leave no stone unturned, it seems, as it tries to increase its ranks. One anonymous high-ranking Democrat told The New York Times that "at some point it's got to settle in with us that there are more of them than there are of us."
None of this should be greeted with much enthusiasm by African-Americans, who know something about living at the mercy of the majority. Democrats will wince at my metaphor, but I can't help thinking that black voters are the elephant in the room. The party talks about faring poorly with churchgoing people although 88 percent of black voters -- a religious group if ever there was one -- cast their votes for Kerry. Party officials fear that liberal values have acquired a "very upper-middle class flavor," to borrow author Thomas Frank's phrase, which undoubtedly confounds the many poor and working-class blacks who have supported the Democrats for decades.
It makes me suspect that Democrats haven't exactly decided to ignore the black voters who supported them so demonstratively on Nov. 2. Maybe they've simply concluded that they aren't the right kind of faithful. The hot demographic is white evangelical Christians, who made up nearly 25 percent of the electorate and voted 4-1 for Bush. Those numbers dwarf the black turnout. Although black participation went up 25 percent, it still accounted for only 11 percent of the electorate.
Republicans had hoped to attract black voters, most of whom oppose gay marriages. Even the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, formerly a District of Columbia delegate to Congress and perhaps the most prominent black opponent of gay marriage, predicted it would have little impact in black communities on Election Day. He told Tavis Smiley back in February, "it's yet another sideshow issue being used by radical right-wing fiscal and social conservatives to divert attention from the critical issues. When I step out into my neighborhood from the church, the question of gay marriage is not even on the radar screen." Fauntroy was proved right as most black churchgoing voters overwhelmingly rejected the GOP's outreach efforts.
Bush didn't need them anyway, and given his past snubs of black leaders, African-Americans can't reasonably expect to benefit from his promises "to reach out to the whole nation." A day after his gracious victory speech, Bush claimed his 51 percent triumph as "the will of the people" and indicated his eagerness to pursue a strict conservative agenda. "When you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view," he said, "and that's what I intend to tell the Congress."
Which leaves African-Americans with about as much political leverage as they had during the Reagan administration, which is to say, none.
It's enough to make me cast a nostalgic glance back at the days when A. Philip Randolph and the "Big Six" of civil rights leadership could stride into the White House, sit down with President Kennedy and boldly assert their plans for a March on Washington. These days, their modern-day counterparts can't even get in the front door.
What's worse, the clueless, desperate Democratic leadership may find it necessary to distance the party from its loyal core, after years of taking it for granted.
After Kerry conceded the election, Bush told the country, "I'm proud to lead it forward. Because we have done the hard work, we are entering a season of hope."
For most African-Americans, it is anything but.