There are good recriminations and bad recriminations.

Good recriminations entail an honest, if painful, assessment of what went wrong. Bad recriminations happen when factions use defeat to score the same tired points against their rivals that they were trying to score before a single vote was counted. Bad recriminators strengthen factions. Good recriminators build parties and movements.

Very little of what went wrong for the Democrats in the 2002 election can be explained by the old center-vs.-left factional fights that have roiled the party since the 1980s. To refight those battles now is to miss the point of 2002.

And what is the point? That George W. Bush has used the post-9/11 environment to usher in a new Republican approach. Bush succeeded brilliantly in hiding partisanship and ideology behind the determined face of national unity. He used his standing after 9/11 to intimidate his opposition.

Thus, while Bush was engaging in "fierce, relentless, highly effective partisanship" -- the description comes from conservative writer Jeff Bell in the current issue of the Weekly Standard -- Democrats were bewildered. Forget left and right: They even missed chances to fight Bush hard on issues that could have united moderates and liberals. Here lie the lessons for the future.

Consider the Democrats' biggest missed opportunity. The polls made clear that while the public likes the president, it preferred a Congress that could have put a check on what he and his GOP colleagues might do if they had the run of Washington.

To make this case required no sharp move leftward. It merely meant suggesting that on matters such as the environment, corporate abuses, workers' rights and budget cuts, Democrats could be a powerful moderating force. The Democrats made some ads on this theme but didn't run them much and resisted nationalizing the election. They left that to Bush.

Similarly, the Democrats allowed Bush to flail Senate Democrats for blocking some of his judicial nominees without making the counterargument: that Senate Democrats were merely resisting an effort to pack the judiciary with conservatives. Make this case loudly and often and you could unite moderates and liberals.

Democrats also vastly underestimated the importance of the homeland security issue -- and, in fairness, so did I. A bureaucratic reshuffling hardly seemed to be a big deal. But Bush scored when he argued that Democrats preferred protecting their allies in the public employee unions to passing the bill he said he needed. This was classic, and shrewd, wedge politics.

The Democrats had two plausible responses: to capitulate to Bush even at the risk of angering their union friends; or to go on the offensive. They did neither. If Democrats had wanted to stick with the unions, they could have aggressively defended the rights of unionized civil servants. Imagine news conferences featuring firefighters, police officers and other public employees who are now national heroes. Are they unpatriotic for wanting some on-the-job protections? Instead, the Democrats moved to -- well, to what other issue, exactly? -- and let Bush wield the homeland security club.

Much has been said of the Democrats' inconsistencies and divisions on tax cuts. But imagine if they had proposed a grand bargain. Short-term action to stimulate the economy (popular possibilities: payroll tax cuts and emergency revenue sharing for the states) could have been paired with a freeze in the parts of the Bush tax cut that will go to the wealthiest Americans. Is this "leftist" or "centrist"? Who cares? It would have been a pro-growth, fiscally responsible program much fairer than what Bush had to offer.

Another reason the Democrats sank in close races last Tuesday: enormous last-minute corporate expenditures, especially from the pharmaceutical companies, on phony "issue ads" attacking Democratic candidates. Where was the outrage? More to the point, why didn't Democrats try harder to gin it up? As Sen. John McCain has shown, opposing the power of big special interests is good government and good politics with both moderates and liberals.

The Democrats are a center-left party. If the party's moderate and liberal wings don't fly together, the old bird will crash into a tree every time. But the Republicans showed that a party can hold itself together and still stand up and fight. The Democrats lost because Bush was much tougher than they were, much smarter in his choice of issues. The Democrats don't need to move left or right. They need to adjust to the new environment terrorism has created. They need to be less inward-looking and less intimidated. As one great Democrat has already put it, they have nothing to fear but fear itself.