The Democrats thought they could run against President Bush without actually running against him. They were wrong. They thought they could make the economy an issue without offering a coherent alternative to Bush's policies. They were wrong. They thought they could get their electoral base to turn out without explaining why it was urgent to stop Bush's program. They were wrong.
The result is an electoral catastrophe, worse for Democrats than the 1994 Republican sweep. Then, at least, Democrats held the White House and could shape the political argument. Now, they have no power centers, no obvious leader.
Democrats will comfort themselves by saying that this was a very close election. A few thousand votes the other way in a few states and the Senate majority could have remained theirs. We remain a 50-50 country. But the country won't stay that way if Democrats fail to see this election as a rejection of their small-bore approach to issues. The voters' verdict should shatter the party's illusions that after 9/11, accommodation to Bush is what's required for success.
Democrats were complicit in the strategy pursued by White House political genius Karl Rove. By trying to work around Bush -- and, in many states, by running as Bush supporters -- Democrats did exactly what Bush needed: They helped keep his approval ratings high.
Because so many of the crucial contests were staged in states Bush had carried in 2000, Democrats figured they had no other choice. But Bush's popularity turned out to be crucial to this outcome. When so many members of the opposition party say he's so good that they agree with him, why should the voters doubt them?
Swing voters didn't decide this election. Voters in the Republican base did. Turnout on Tuesday was, in many places, mediocre. But because of their affection for Bush and because they believe with such conviction that their view of the world is right, conservative Republicans swarmed the ballot boxes.
The paradox is that Democrats looked partisan -- witness the Wellstone memorial rally -- even as they were being accommodationist. The Republicans shrouded their partisanship behind a "let's work together" veil. Democratic political consultants should go through an agonizing reappraisal of what they do. So many of them argued for tactical campaigns. They thought they could win enough races on the edges -- a little prescription drugs here, a little Social Security there. But tactics are no substitute for ideas or for courage.
The natural response of Democrats to this disaster will be to retreat to comfortable old arguments. The party's left will say the problem is that Democrats weren't progressive enough. The party's moderates will say the problem is that Democrats weren't centrist enough.
This debate is useless. The Democrats' problem is not about positioning. It's about having something to say about things that matter. Most Democrats believe the Bush tax cuts are a disaster not only because they threaten fiscal chaos but also because they will deprive the government of revenue needed to solve problems. But too many Democrats were afraid to say that.
Most Democrats believe that government regulation -- to protect the environment and to curb business abuses -- can be a good thing. But too many were afraid to say that.
Most Democrats worry that a divided Bush foreign policy team will mismanage a war on Iraq and needlessly alienate our allies. But too many were afraid to say that.
Republicans stand for things and have passion. They have built a powerful network of fundraisers, lobbyists, think tanks, consultants, talk-show hosts and grass-roots activists. They now have control of the federal government. Democrats have to learn how to oppose, how to organize and how to inspire. In this election, they failed at all three.