No time for mending wounded hearts -- politics is not a soft business.

Lose a big-time election and you get bludgeoned for running an awful campaign, for not tapping into the right issues, for not firing up voters, for not accepting good advice. Essentially, you get ka-powed for being lame. And all this mercilessness doesn't come from your enemies, it comes from your friends.

Oh, it's a cruel ritual, all right. But it's a predictable practice. The blanket of blame spares no one -- not the candidate, not the pollster, not the party leader. So let the ugly fun begin:

"I kind of enjoy the second-guessing and recriminations and finger-pointing," says James Carville, the former Clinton strategist and one of the Democratic Party's most colorful characters.

But why, James, why?

"Because it kind of exposes human nature. There will be more symposia and op-ed pieces, pontificators scratching their chins talking about the demise of the Democratic Party. I enjoy observing the pettiness that defeat brings out in people. And I particularly enjoy the hubris that victory brings out in people."

But what about your role, James?

"Yes, I will engage in the petty carping and sniping. I'll jump out there with the best of those sniping."

Democrats everywhere woke up yesterday and found themselves on the butt end of history. This year's midterm elections marked the first time in half a century that the Republican Party has taken complete control of the elective branches of the federal government. You know Democrats were not in a generous mood. Ornery. Some suggested that maybe the problem was one of leadership. The beady eyes zeroed in on House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who failed for the fourth time to regain control of his chamber for the Democrats. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee was among the first to call for an infusion of "new faces" and "new ideas" in the House Democratic hierarchy. He compared Gephardt to a baseball manager who is adored but doesn't win. And we know what happens to managers who don't win. By the end of the day, party sources were reporting that Gephardt would not be running for another term as minority leader.

Speaking of losing, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening didn't give his lieutenant governor a moment to mourn before dumping on her disastrous bid to succeed him. He called Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's effort "one of the worst-run campaigns in the country" and the "oddest campaign for governor anybody has ever seen."

A big bouquet of second-guesses.

"We worked hard, but you've got to be connected to your base," says Kevin Jefferson, executive director of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute. He, too, took aim at Townsend's campaign, faulting her for, among other sins, selecting retired admiral and converted Republican Charles Larson as her running mate.

But hey, that's what a night like Tuesday can do to the vanquished.

"Once again, they boxed Democrats into being tax-and-spend liberals," says Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager and a consultant to the Democrats for this year's midterm races. "We're probably going to assess this ad nauseam." But the fact is, she adds, on Tuesday "the Republicans proved they have the moxie and they have a message."

Brazile says she's through with national politics now. Done. She just hopes that in 2004, the party will "nominate somebody who will fight, offer an alternative vision and go toe-to-toe."

This fight theme was also on Carville's mind. The Democrats, he says, keep thinking that if you take controversial issues off the table and do enough phone banks, you can get enough people to vote for you. "But the key word in all of this is 'reason' -- they have to have a reason to vote."

Tuesday night Carville marked the occasion of the Democratic debacle by placing a trash can over his dome as he sat in a CNN studio doing his TV-punditry bit. It was just his way of injecting a little humor into an otherwise dismal night. Meanwhile, his sidekick from the Clinton campaign days, Paul Begala, flailed away at his party for not drawing sharp distinctions with Bush over fiscal policy and the looming war with Iraq. Such limp behavior, he said, can be traced to the "accommodationist wing of the Democratic Party." Whatever that is.

Tom Downey, the former Democratic congressman from New York, speaking in gentler tones, says perhaps the early calculation of making the impending war bipartisan was a miscalculation. As Democrats, "it's difficult to speak with one voice," he adds. That said, "Democrats are going to start having to be active Democrats if we're going to energize our base."

For his part, he explains how he feels in pickup basketball terms. "It's like losing six games in a row," says Downey, who possesses an often deadly jump shot. "In my mind, it wasn't the cataclysm that 1994 was, but it was pretty bad."

The comfort for Democrats, if there is any, is that the other party has felt the same pain and anger. In 1992, when Democrats elected Bill Clinton and with him the biggest congressional freshman class in 44 years, Republicans stewed and squabbled. There were calls for the head of national GOP chairman Rich Bond and massive dissing of incumbent President George Bush and his handling of the economy. Get a load of this 1992 zinger from GOP strategist James Pinkerton: "We've got to ask ourselves, what would make a voter vote for a draft-dodging, womanizing, fill-in-the-blank sleazeball? What would drive them to it? This says a lot about us, doesn't it?"

At times like these, the only salvation for a party in angst is spin. Just pure spin.

And for that, we turn to the national Democratic chairman, Terry McAuliffe.

"So where do we find ourselves now?" the chairman mused yesterday. "Basically the same place we found ourselves after the 2000 election." In a nation not bitterly divided, but almost evenly divided. He went on to suggest that nine of the 10 competitive Senate races took place on Republican turf, meaning in states that Bush carried in 2000. So Democrats were, in essence, playing away games. He noted that there would be new Democratic governors in Oklahoma, which was an upset, and in Dick Cheney's home state of Wyoming. "Folks, Democrats are in good shape."

Maybe McAuliffe is trying to convince himself. But to truly understand the psychology of defeat there is perhaps nowhere better to turn than to the retired legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who once famously said, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."

Yesterday, Auerbach tried to put the Democrats' setback in some global perspective. "You see, it's too easy to lose," he said. Sometimes you've already lost before you play -- you've made your excuses ahead of time. "For instance, you have an injury, so you're expected to lose. This guy is hurt, blah, blah. See what I mean?"

Got it, Red.

"So you go in there with a defeatist complex. See what I mean?"

Got it, Red.

"It's not so bad for them," Auerbach said of the Democrats. The finger-pointing they could do without. But the disgust, the disenchantment, that's fine. "You show me a guy who loses an election and he's happy, he's an idiot. If you lose, you have to go out and say, 'I'm the unhappiest person in the world.' When you lose, I want you to be unhappy, I want you to be miserable."

Which is pretty much what a lot of Democrats are today.

After the election and before the spin, the grim faces of DNC staffers Alice Germond, B.J. Thornberry and Gail Stoltz."Democrats are in good shape," opined Terry McAuliffe (with Gov. Howard Dean).In the House, Dick Gephardt, above, is taking the fall for Tuesday's election results. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, below, said his own lieutenant governor had "one of the worst-run campaigns in the country."