WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry's (search) defeat to President Bush (search) seemed to catch plenty of impassioned Democrats off guard, leading the party faithful to come up with an array of causal explanations, many of which can be traced to 2000 but have been largely ignored since then.
Following defeat four years ago, many political observers expected the Democratic Party to re-evaluate its priorities and message following the stunningly close finish between then-Texas Gov. Bush and Al Gore, a scandal-free vice president who served in peacetime during a period of dizzying economic growth.
But by summer 2004, that reflection had taken a back seat as Democrats were emboldened by nationwide voter registration drives, record-breaking fund-raising successes and a candidate who is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. Party loyalists seemed confident that the bloody postwar period in Iraq and weaker-than-expected job growth would rouse a desire for change, even among voters who weren't in love with the Massachusetts senator's personality.
It's Not The Economy, Stupid
Something didn't click despite early election polls that favored Kerry, and observers from the outskirts of the party are now crediting or blaming Republican coordination and discipline as much as Democratic misguidance and self-assuredness.
In last summer's best-selling "What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," author Thomas Frank (search) all but predicted the election's outcome.
"The Republicans are masters of institution- and movement-building, while Democrats have let theirs whither on the vine," Frank told FOXNews.com.
In his book, Frank uses the example of the decades-long shift in voter attitudes in his native Midwestern farming state to help explain how the Democratic Party has been stripped of its New Deal credibility to the GOP’s benefit.
Kansans, among the most economically disadvantaged in the nation, no longer believe Democrats are the party of average working Americans, Frank explains.
Republicans have taken that mantle despite not serving the interests of working-class Americans, Frank says, claiming that the president and his cohorts, like anti-tax activist Grover Norquist (search), are more interested in helping their friends in the wealthy class first.
Still, Bush wasn’t re-elected solely because of GOP bait-and-switch, Frank says, but because the Democratic Party, in its rush to compete in dollar amounts, deprived itself of a potent platform from which to attack the Republican Party.
"NAFTA was the killer. There were many ways in which [the Democratic Party] made this mistake," Frank told FOXNews.com. "[Former President Clinton] signed off on the Reagan economic agenda. From antitrust to deregulation, there is a blurred distinction between the Republican Party and Democratic Party on economic issues."
By befriending certain segments of corporate America — "New Economy billionaires," as Frank puts it — Clinton and other centrists within the party were trying to signal they were not the enemy of business. But in doing so, they may have spent the credibility they would later need to hammer Republicans on Enron and other Wall Street scandals that unfolded at the start of the Bush administration.
Clinton’s apparent alliance with big business and failure to close the wealth gap alienated many liberal Democrats, who ran toward Ralph Nader in 2000. The consumer advocate's role in the election is said by many to have cost Gore a win.
Democratic pollster Pat Caddell agrees that the party needs to wean itself off large corporate donors.
"Eight trillion dollars of the people's money disappeared in the 401(k) scandal ... the Democrats never spoke about it in the campaign," Caddell told FOX News. "They’re so indebted to those money sources that they can’t go after corporate corruption."
Caddell pointed out that a $140 billion corporate tax cut bill, derided by Republican Sen. John McCain as "the worst example of the influence of special interests that I have ever seen," easily slipped through Congress before winding up on Bush’s desk.
While acknowledging it will be extremely difficult to compete without corporate cash, Frank insists the party has no other choice.
"Money isn't the only thing. You have to figure out what your advantage is and leverage that," Frank said. "[The Democrats’] advantage used to be they were the party of the common people, not money. They need to figure out how to do this without the money."
You Gotta Have Faith
Many Democrats also spent the days after the election wondering if a culture war of some kind had been percolating right under their noses and without their knowledge.
Exit polls show that moral values were a prime reason people went to the polls, and an overwhelming majority of those voters preferred Bush to Kerry. But morality was only a component of the divisions between red state Republicans and blue state Democrats. Another component is the different perceptions of paternalism.
"Kerry comes across as a son of privilege, a product of the Eastern elite that people out there can't stand," Bostonian Bill Zarnoch, who attended college in Indiana, told FOXNews.com. "Even though Democrats would've helped [Midwesterners] more, they still voted for Bush because they think he’s a good old boy."
The fact that Bush, a political scion, is perceived as more of a Joe Everyman than Kerry, who had a comfortable upbringing but volunteered for service in the Vietnam War, is a sore point with Democrats. But it may be understandable that voters who live in the Midwest and South feel under attack by those who live in major urban centers, where city folk dress like country folk as a Halloween gag or fashion statement.
"Midwesterners don't really relate to Democrats," Carol Kolb, editor-in-chief of satirical newspaper The Onion and a Wisconsin native, told FOXNews.com. "Especially Kerry, he was much more intellectual than Bush, and that's not what someone in Middle America relates to.
"The problem with the Democratic Party is they really do have the wishes of the masses in mind, but I think there is a little bit of condescension," said Kolb, who voted for Kerry. "If you're in a position to almost become president of the United States, you're not in a position to relate to the common man completely."
Other Democrats were riled by the party's ineffectiveness at fighting attacks like an anti-Howard Dean ad that ran during the primaries, which referred to the former Vermont governor as a "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading … left-wing freak show."
"That’s how [the GOP] creates divisions," said Jeff Price, president of Brooklyn-based spinArt Records. "You call them names. The right has done a very effective job at framing the left — they suck at responding," Price, 37, told FOXNews.com
The values issue also can't be overlooked. Though ABC News’ director of polling Gary Langer has pointed out that poor wording may have inflated exit poll results on "moral values," many commentators have wondered aloud if Christian conservatives have declared a holy war on Democrats.
"It's clear that on conservative moral values, people voted for those values over their own economic interests," United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard told the Associated Press last week. "I don’t understand it, and I think we need to go back and look at it."
While Democrats who chafe under the notion of mixing politics and religion wring their hands over how to win back those Americans, post-election humor pointed at the Christian right has popped up all over the Web.
Leaders on both sides agree that such mockery has played a part in red staters' alienation from the Democratic Party, and urge against sneering at religious and conservative Americans.
"You’re making fun of Americans who have some religious bent or a faith. Keep doing that and your people will never win an election," former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who supports abortion rights and has a warm relationship with the gay community, told comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show last Friday.
"Kansas" author Frank, who voted for Kerry, said that painting Bush supporters as "Jesus lovers" and hicks is not only unfair but also likely to backfire.
Additionally, Beliefnet.com’s Steven Waldman and John Green have argued that when asked questions measuring faith outside of church attendance, Democrats are shown to be comparably religious to Republicans.
But some secular Democrats strongly believe they can be the party of values without using overtly religious language.
"I'm agnostic but I still believe in morality, in right and wrong," Zarnoch said. "[Kerry] never brought up the civilian casualties in Iraq, which could have appealed to evangelicals."
Kevin Owens, a schoolteacher in Austin, Texas, argued that Democrats embody Christian values more than Republicans.
"Ask [Republicans] what Jesus said about the difficulty of a rich man getting into heaven. What does this say about tax cuts, about cutting funding for schools, health insurance and apparent favoritism for the wealthiest contingent of our country?" asked Owens, 31. "The Sermon on the Mount said ‘blessed are the peacemakers.' Can this administration really call itself peacemakers?"
While little of the introspection to come is likely to calm many nerves, David P. Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, recommends that Democrats "chill out a little bit."
"American politics goes through trends, so we're in a different cycle now," Redlawsk told FOXNews.com. "After Clinton won in 1992 there was serious demoralization [among Republicans.] ... Those passions burn really, really deeply. It doesn't matter which election it is."