After losing back-to-back presidential elections, Democratic leaders are trying to figure out how to make the party more relevant to mainstream Americans and keep it from slipping into perpetual minority-party status. And the task is daunting, many Democratic consultants and leaders agree.
Republicans have cut deeply into formerly Democratic areas in rural America, the Sunbelt, and among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority group. They have made gains on "family values" issues, winning over social conservatives who previously voted Democratic on economic issues, while keeping their advantage on national defense. "We were on a tough playing field," said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi a California Democrat, suggesting Republicans had made inroads among socially conservative former Democrats by emphasizing "wedge issues" like gay marriage and abortion.
Ballot measures in 11 states to ban gay marriage also helped boost turnout for Republicans.
Democrats also have no strong leader to pull the party out of the wilderness. With the defeat of Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the party's top two congressional leaders are Pelosi, a San Francisco-area liberal, and Nevada senator Harry Reid, now the number 2 leader, known mostly as a low-key insider.
For 2008 the presumptive leading presidential candidates are New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Northeastern centrist and one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, and North Carolina senator John Edwards, a trial lawyer and failed vice presidential candidate with little public service besides six years in Congress.
Democrats have a bad case of the blues after seeing so much red. A look at the 2004 election map with states President Bush won in red and John Kerry's in blue underscores the dilemma.
Unbroken stretches of red nearly from coast to coast, encompass most of the heartland, the South, the Great Plains, the desert Southwest, and the Rocky Mountain West. Blue states are mostly a fringe along both coasts--the Northeastern seaboard and the West Coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington--along with some of the industrial states bordering the Great Lakes. Democrats suffer from a chronic geographical and ideological predilection: They nominate candidates from the political left who have a hard time appealing to those in the middle.
"My advice to the Democrats is never, never nominate anybody from Massachusetts again," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. The last Northeastern Democrat elected president was John F. Kennedy in 1960. Since then, just three Democrats--all from the South--have served: Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said Friday that Democrats were never able to bring economic issues to the fore. "We run elections in a real world. You can choose to say you wanted to focus on the economy, but Iraq was a powerful story. People were dying. You cannot have Iraq news without a candidate talking about it," Greenberg told reporters during a postmortem session. Robert Borosage, codirector of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, said, "Democrats have started forming their circular firing squads."