As Democrats try to figure out what went wrong on Tuesday and how to remedy it, they will understandably be tempted to blame John Kerry.  He was a thoroughly unappealing candidate, with a thoroughly unpersuasive message, surrounded by thoroughly clueless strategists (see Swift Boat Veterans for Truth).

But to do so would only continue the destructive dance of denial the party has been engaged in since Bill Clinton left office, where we spend all our post-election energy making excuses and finding scapegoats (see Ralph Nader, Justice Scalia) instead of confronting the painful reality that the people just are not buying what we are selling.  Just look at the solid sea of red in the heartland.

We have to remember we nominated Kerry — naively believing that his war hero status would somehow obscure his disingenuous equivocating on the central issue of the campaign, the war in Iraq.  And we have to remember that it was not just Kerry who failed to unseat a failed President — this was a wholesale repudiation of national Democrats.  Just ask Tom Daschle.

If we want to stop this slide into long-term minority status and be competitive in national elections, we must use our time in the political wilderness to do some serious soul-searching, to own up to our major electoral weaknesses and do something about them.   Here are four critical places to start:

Finding Credibility on Security.  This election revealed that the public fundamentally doubts the ability of Democrats to keep the country safe.  That’s partially a byproduct of a brilliant attack campaign by the Republicans.  But we certainly made their job easy by emphasizing summits and diplomacy and showing unease with the use of force.  If we hope to win elections in the post-9/11 era, we must change that equation.

Closing the God Gap.  The election also confirmed that culture and character are far more important to connecting with voters than policies and programs.  And nowhere do Republicans have a bigger advantage than on religion.  The Bush team was able to convince more voters that God was on his side because he was speaking in a vacuum — Democrats remain uncomfortable talking about faith and are too often disdainful of the faithful.  We must realize that people (especially in rural areas) won’t listen to us on the issues, let alone share their votes, if they don’t think we share their values.

Tapping New Ideas.   John Kerry and many other national Democrats tried to tap into the Clinton mojo, but they mostly forgot one of the central lessons 42 taught us — ideas matter.  Clinton won over the middle class not just with his centrist rhetoric, but his ideologically transcendent and transformational proposals.  Kerry, by contrast, offered no memorable breakthrough initiatives, making it easy to pigeonhole him as another big-spending liberal.  We will only outperform the Republicans by out-thinking them again.

Breaking Old Habits.    To develop the next generation of new ideas, Democrats have to break out of the stale political grooves we have been stuck in.  That means declaring our independence once and for all from the sclerotic influence of progress-blocking interest groups like the teachers unions.  And it means banishing once and for all top Kerry strategist Bob Shrum and his tone-deaf chardonnay populism, along with the rest of his out-of-touch peers who continually lose us presidential elections.

Dan Gerstein was formerly communications director for Senator Joe Lieberman and a senior strategist for his presidential campaign.