So first, Democrats need to look at what happened this year, and then say, "What's next!". And that means, among other things, that we need to stop the kvetching about why John Kerry lost, because there is no single reason. Terrorism is a part of it; so are "moral values"; so was the economy; so was the weird "comfort factor" that has always baffled me. (More than a few people I've actually spoken to at work and elsewhere admit to being more simpatico with Kerry than with Bush on the issues, but voted for Bush anyway because there was just something about Kerry they didn't like. Well, you can't really fight that, at least, not at first.) The fact is that he simply lost.
I might quote another Star Trek TNG episode here. In one episode, Data loses a game of intellectual skill to an opponent he most definitely should have wiped the floor with, and Data then goes into a tailspin as he tries to analyze just why his amazing positronic brain failed him. This goes on until Picard, clearly impatient with Data's sudden indecision, snaps at him thusly: "It is possible to do everything correctly and still lose. That is life."
Now, yes, there are mistakes that Kerry made here and there, and there are things he might have done differently, but I genuinely don't think any of them add up to a concrete reason why he lost. It still boils down to more people deciding they wanted the other guy at the helm, and it's over. Kerry ran, and he lost. What's next!
Well, to figure that out, we need to look closer at the results. Not at who won and who lost, and not at the polling data as to why, but at the actual results. Democrat after Democrat after Democrat lost this year, but interestingly, few of them lost in blowouts. This was an election of many, many close elections; it was not any kind of "massive repudiation of Liberalism", no matter how the Republicans might want to wish it was. Last time out, George W. Bush won the Presidency with one more electoral vote than he needed to do so; this time, he did it with sixteen more. This was no Reagan-crushing-Carter or Bush-demolishing-Dukakis election. The Democrats came close, a whole lot of times. Yeah, being close is still being the loser, but I'd rather be the 1990 Buffalo Bills and lose the Super Bowl by a single point than be the 1989 Denver Broncos and lose the Super Bowl by 45 points.
What does that mean, then? Well, to me it means that a lot of the country is at least receptive to Democratic ideas. None of it is a "done deal". And that means that it's time for Democrats to move on...to 2006, and the mid-term elections. And while Democratic eyes will be on winning back seats in the House and Senate, I think that the 2006 midterms need to be viewed in terms of Democratic infrastructure, and that means upping the efforts at the state level: Governorships and state legislatures.
Kevin Drum had a good post about this the other day. The "next generation" of Democratic candidates at the national level are going to come from the state level, just as the Republicans started their road to their current dominance at the state level two and three decades ago. Consider: newly elected US Senator Barack Obama rose from the Illinois legislature, as did newly elected Congressman from Buffalo Brian Higgins (at least, apparently elected -- the race is sitll in dispute). I believe this needs to be a major focus of Democratic effort. Increased comfort with Democrats in charge at the state level will eventually translate to increased comfort with Democrats in charge at national levels, and increased numbers of Democratic officeholders at the state level will yield more Democratic candidates for national office. Maybe not in 2006, maybe not even in 2008, but sometime. The Democrats need to be patient here, but a real road through the current morass exists.
Another reason to concentrate on state legislatures is sheer self-preservation: if Democrats want to avoid being gerrymandered out of yet more Congressional seats after the 2010 census, they have to start the work of taking state legislatures now, so that Democrats and not Republicans are in control of as many redistricting processes after 2010. (Full disclosure here: if I had my way, every state would use a bipartisan, or nonpartisan, commission to handle post-census redistricting. I don't think that Democrats or Republicans can really be trusted to not gerrymander the other. But until that happens, I believe that the Democrats should operate in the world that exists, not the world we wished existed.)
We tried to slay that dragon that is George W. Bush, and we failed. That doesn't mean that there aren't lots of little dragons waiting to be taken on in the next set of elections.