Democratic strategist James Carville said yesterday that the Democratic Party's losses last Tuesday were no fluke, and that they need to rethink exactly who they are and provide something more than a litany of policy proposals.
"The underlying problem here is, there is no call to arms that the Democratic Party is making to the country," said Mr. Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign win. "We've got to reassess ourselves. We've got to be born again."
Democrats are debating what went right and what went wrong in last Tuesday's election, in which President Bush won re-election over Sen. John Kerry, and Democrats also lost seats in both the House and Senate. Some have said there is no need for soul-searching, and blamed the losses on a difficult election-year map or a poor candidate at the top of the ticket.
During the Democratic National Convention this summer in Boston, when Mr. Bush trailed in the polls, Mr. Carville said, "It would be the greatest political achievement of my lifetime" if he came back to beat Mr. Kerry.
But yesterday, Mr. Carville said not only was it a great comeback, but coupled with the 2002 congressional-election losses, it shows it's time for Democrats to engage in a major re-examination.
"We can deny this crap, but I'm out of the denial. I'm about reality here," Mr. Carville told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "We are an opposition party, and as of right now, not a particularly effective one. You can't deny reality here."
He said the party is desperately in need of a compelling narrative to tell voters, rather than the "litany of issues" the party stands for now.
He said Mr. Bush and Republicans presented just such a story: "These guys had a narrative -- we're going to protect you from the terrorists in Tikrit and from the homos in Hollywood. That's it," he said. "I think we could elect somebody from Beverly Hills if they had some compelling narrative to tell people about what the country is."
The other guests at yesterday's breakfast, both of whom worked directly for Mr. Kerry, said things weren't that grim.
"The Kerry campaign was in a position to win," said pollster Stanley Greenberg, and chief consultant Bob Shrum said Mr. Kerry came within "60,000 votes in Ohio" of winning the presidency.
Still, Mr. Greenberg said, the cultural issues at work in this election are strong, and could provide Republicans enduring gains, particularly among union households and Hispanic voters.
Mr. Carville, who had just returned from a vacation at Disney World with his family and wife, Republican strategist Mary Matalin, at times seemed unable to put into words just how much of a hill Democrats have to climb.
He said he is considering writing a book about what direction Democrats should go.
One possibility, he said, was to embrace a reform-oriented, anti-Washington agenda. That would require the ability of members of Congress to reject pork projects for their districts and stake the party's fortunes on fiscal discipline.
During the Carville-run 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton, the last Democrat to win the presidency -- albeit, both times with less than a majority vote -- took on rap artist Sister Souljah and promised to focus on pro-business policies that would lead to economic growth.
The three men yesterday said Democrats won't embrace the Republican position on cultural issues like the definition of marriage.
"Some of the stuff I read is not going to happen," Mr. Shrum said. "The Democratic Party is not going to be better at competing with the Republican Party at being anti-gay. And frankly, I wouldn't be in that party. I would leave that party."