Democrats have to end their addiction to the Kerry alibi.

They may be publicly castigating their national chairman, Howard Dean. But wherever two or more Democrats are gathered privately, their instinct is to blame John Kerry first. I am fed up (to borrow Bill Safire's coinage) with the nattering nabobs of negativism who make themselves feel good by trashing Kerry.

This habit is dangerous because dissing Kerry is an easy way for Democrats to evade discussion of what the party needs to do to right itself. By focusing on the past, the Kerry alibi allows Democrats to avoid engaging the future. In 2008, the Democrats could nominate a candidate who combines Harry Truman's toughness, JFK's charm and FDR's gifts of leadership -- and still face many of the problems Kerry confronted. Blaming everything on Kerry as a supposedly elitist, stiff and indecisive Massachusetts liberal is the Democrats' version of cheap grace.

Please understand: I didn't think Kerry was the ideal Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 and don't think he'd be ideal for 2008. I still cringe when the part of my brain prone to nightmares brings back his talk about voting for the $87 billion to finance the Iraq war before he voted against it. Kerry didn't find a clear voice on Iraq until too late and didn't respond quickly enough to the scurrilous attacks of the partisan Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

But saying that Kerry was the Democrats' one and only problem is both an evasion and unfair. The three debates were the only moments in the campaign in which Kerry's fate was entirely in his own hands, and he used them well. Kerry trounced Bush the first time and, I'd argue, beat him in the other two encounters.

His one false move was mentioning Mary Cheney in connection with the gay rights issue. He shouldn't have done that. But the Cheney slip became a big deal because the Bush machine is so skillful at turning little things into big things -- always with help from Rush and Fox and the rest of the party-line conservative media eager to read scripts generated by the White House. This is not just a Kerry problem but a long-term challenge for his party.

That raises the larger question. The Republicans and their allies spent millions taking Kerry apart. They would have done the same to John Edwards, Wesley Clark or Dean. Would those three have handled the attacks better? Who knows? Would they have looked a lot worse for the wear? You bet.

Bush's lieutenants always understood that their candidate couldn't win unless his Democratic opponent was turned into Frankenstein. This crowd may not know how to beat the Iraqi insurgency, but they sure know how to make Democrats look bad.

Yes, Kerry had trouble articulating a persuasive position on Iraq and terrorism. But in a Democratic Party badly divided on national security, he was far from alone in having this problem. Once Bush got the country into Iraq, Democrats were no clearer on how to win or get us out than Bush was -- but the president, as the instigator of the war, looked strong, and that was enough. Any Democrat would have been swimming against the security tide created by Sept. 11. It's not obvious that another Democrat would have done a better backstroke or butterfly.

Kerry didn't invent the Democrats' problems on abortion, their weakness in the South, their troubles with very religious voters. Democratic candidates of the future will have to grapple with the same challenges. True, Bill Clinton did better on such things. But -- with the exception of a certain unfortunate scandal and a certain unfortunate pardon -- Clinton did better than most politicians at almost everything.

So why wasn't Kerry stronger on the economy? Well, Kerry's plan on health care was genuinely innovative. His ideas on outsourcing clung to the pro-business center -- the very place where many of Kerry's critics say the party belongs. Yes, Kerry should have done better in answering the nation's economic anxieties. But if his party cares about the future, it needs to do better, too.

Were John Kerry to quit politics and spend the rest of his life windsurfing off Nantucket, Democrats would still have to figure out how to deal with national security, social issues and economic stress. That's hard work. Making fun of Kerry is easy, fashionable and, ultimately, useless.