That was the verdict of Democratic leaders yesterday in the wake of across-the-board losses in the Tuesday elections. They lost, they said, not for the positions they took but because of a difficult election map and because Republicans clouded the issues.
“It’s not about soul-searching,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “It may be about how we can educate the American people more clearly on the difference between Democrats and Republicans.
“But we know what the soul of the Democratic Party is, and it’s about prosperity and community and opportunity and fairness. It’s about accountability, and it’s about protecting our country.”
That verdict was not unanimous. Some Democrats said the party must understand that Tuesday was “a major defeat for Democrats,” as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut put it.
Republicans “were actually winning in areas that were historically Democratic areas,” Mr. Dodd said. Democrats have to realize that they didn’t connect with voters on values, he said, and that they cannot concede that ground and win.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who counts himself among the dozen or so centrist Democrats in the chamber, said the Kerry-Edwards team’s weakness in many states meant that other Democrats there had to run with little help from the top of the ticket.
“While I thought that Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards ran quite a good campaign, in the end, they weren’t competitive in many of the states where Senate seats were up for grabs,” said Mr. Carper. He supported Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in the party primaries.
“In the end, it was extremely difficult for our Democratic Senate candidates to overcome a 30-point spread that the president ran up against our ticket in places like Alaska, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota.”
Democratic losses were lightest in the House, with Mrs. Pelosi’s team dropping two seats to Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats lost four seats, giving the Republicans 55 seats.
Unlike in the ‘02 congressional elections, when Democrats exploited a fight over the House leadership as a surrogate battle over the direction of the party, there won’t be a fight in either chamber this year.
Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said yesterday that he has enough votes to replace Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was defeated for re-election. Mr. Dodd, who was considered a prospective challenger, said he would support Mr. Reid.
The battle to succeed Mr. Reid as minority whip appears to be between Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
“Earlier today, I received a call from President Bush and we discussed the need for reconciliation,” Mr. Reid said. “I appreciate the president reaching out, and I look forward to working with him on important issues for Nevada and the nation. At the same time, I will not shirk from my responsibility to stand up and fight for Nevada values and Democratic principles.”
Several Democrats said they won’t forgo legislative tactics to block Republican initiatives, including the filibuster in the Senate. Republicans are counting on their expanded majority to make Democrats “think twice.”
“I think the people spoke on obstruction and the people want results,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said in Orlando, Fla., where he met with Mel Martinez, the successful Republican Senate candidate in Florida.
Mr. Carper said he thinks the election did not turn on charges of obstruction, but that both parties “need to come to the middle, and whoever does will likely be the dominant political party in the next couple of elections.”
He said the centrist Democrats in the Senate, in phone calls yesterday, talked about trying to ensure that they are on the next Democratic leadership team.
Several Democrats said they must learn from former President Bill Clinton, who moved the party toward the middle in winning two presidential elections in the 1990s.
Sen. Zell Miller, the retiring Georgia Democrat who worked to elect Mr. Bush, said the Tuesday elections are more evidence that Democrats must change their message. “Fiscal responsibility is unbelievable in the face of massive new spending promises. A foreign policy based on the strength of ‘allies’ like France is unacceptable,” he said. “A strong national defense policy is just not believable coming from a candidate who built a career as an anti-war veteran, an anti-military candidate and an anti-action senator.”
“When will national Democrats sober up and admit that that dog won’t hunt?” he asked. “Secular socialism, heavy taxes, big spending, weak defense, limitless lawsuits and heavy regulation — that pack of beagles hasn’t caught a rabbit in the South or Midwest in years.”
Mrs. Pelosi, joined by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert T. Matsui of California, said they will try to work with Mr. Bush, but the president must move toward Democratic positions on Social Security and taxes, and must present a new plan for Iraq.
“I think we’re going to have to actually hope that he comes to us and hopefully tries to find some way that we can work on a bipartisan basis on these issues,” Mr. Matsui said, “because if, in fact, he continues to do what he did for the last four years, I believe, unfortunately, it’s going to be a very, very difficult time, and we have problems that have to be solved.”
Mrs. Pelosi said Democrats will do better in 2006.
“I think the table is set for us in the next election. I welcome the fray,” she said. “I look forward to conveying to the public what the differences are between the Democrats and the Republicans here. And many people thought that this would be a one-two punch, and that is what it will be. But we have lost just about everything that we can lose.”
Brian DeBose in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.