- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

It happens after every political defeat: an agonizing reassessment. Correction: It should happen after every political defeat. It doesn’t, not always. That is why the Whig Party isn’t around anymore, unfortunately. (Some of us still miss the party of Henry Clay and young Abe Lincoln.)

But the Whigs just wouldn’t learn. Confronted by the most existential of choices — Unite or Die — the Whig Party chose to die. Torn apart by its sectional divisions, a party that might have saved the Union couldn’t even save itself. It dissolved into factions, including upstart Free-Soilers and Republicans. And now the Whigs excite the interest only of historians. Because they refused to adapt to the times. That way lies extinction.

After Tuesday’s election, the Democratic Party could stand some reassessing, too, while it’s still around. What other choice has it got?

Well, the Democrats could just sit back and wait for disaster to strike the country and the Republicans. The Dems could hope Americans would then turn to them as the only alternative in a two-party system, the way the country did after the Crash.

But I wouldn’t advise being bearish on America. It’s never a wise course in the long run, and seldom in the short run, either.

Or the Democratic Party could hunker down in those safe blue states and accept its fate as a permanent geographical and ideological minority, much as the GOP did during the ‘30s and ‘40s. But that’s a long time between presidencies: two decades.

It took a popular general to revive the Republican Party in 1952. Nobody was quite sure what Dwight Eisenhower stood for, but he had an irresistible smile and moderate mien. Having earned the nation’s trust, he let his record take the place of any clear platform. Result: He united a sharply divided nation and saved the GOP despite itself. All in the middle of a war, a k a the Korean police action.

But how often does an Eisenhower come along? The Dems could have used a 2004 version of a nonideological, unifying and smiling Ike. For a brief time, some of us thought they had found one. Instead, he turned out to be Wesley Clark. You knew Mr. Clark wouldn’t do as soon as Michael Moore endorsed him.

Of course, the Democrats don’t have to change. They can just sit back and let the red states turn redder, and lose the next three or four presidential elections. They can just drift to port until they become a cozy little club. They can meet every four years at their national convention to exchange clever repartee and inside jokes, congratulating themselves on their own ideological purity and general sophistication. Much like Taft Republicans in the GOP’s dark age. There are certain satisfactions to be had in being righteously isolated.

After the Republican debacle in the congressional elections of 1958, Whittaker Chambers wrote a letter to his young friend William F. Buckley, warning that if Republicans “can not get some grip on the actual world we live in and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people — why, somebody else will. There will be nothing left to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity.”

Substitute “Democrats” for Republicans in Chambers’ warning, and you have the challenge confronting Democrats today. Chambers compared his party’s more ideological wing to “to one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth…. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling, He just likes to hold and to feel.”

Or the Democrats could wake up and try to connect with the vast and increasing American majority that will settle for nothing less than victory abroad and economic independence for more and more Americans at home, whether the topic is terrorism, Social Security, education or economic growth. Wasn’t there once a Democratic Party like that? Why not again?

The future of the Democratic Party, if it is to have one, lies not with the Howard Deans and Michael Moores, or even with the only vaguely defined John Kerrys and John Edwardses, but with bright young comers like Barack Obama. He’s the next U.S. senator from Illinois and a natural conciliator. Someone who is rooted in his faith, dedicated to building community, and who can even work with Republicans to achieve sensible reforms.

Here’s the lesson of 2004 for the Democrats:

Accentuate the positive (the Barack Obamas), eliminate the negative (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Charlie Rangel and all the other race-hustlers and assorted demagogues who have made the Democratic Party their nest), and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between (the John Kerrys.)

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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