AS Republicans revel in President Bush's inauguration and prepare for his agenda-setting State of the Union address next week, many Democrats would like to consider almost anything but the substance of politics as the reason for their defeat last November. If only John Kerry had been a stronger candidate. If only the message had been framed differently. If only the party's strategists were as tough as the guys on the other side.
The limits of candidates and campaigns, however, can't explain the Democrats' long-term decline. And while the institutional decay at the party's base - the decline of labor unions and ethnically based party organizations - has played a role, the people who point to "moral values" may not be far off. Democrats have paid a historic price for their role in the great moral revolutions that during the past half-century have transformed relations between whites and blacks, men and women, gays and straights. And liberal Democrats, in particular, have been inviting political oblivion - not by advocating the wrong causes, but by letting their political instincts atrophy and relying on the legal system.
To be sure, Democrats were right to challenge segregation and racism, support the revolution in women's roles in society, to protect rights to abortion and to back the civil rights of gays. But a party can make only so many enemies before it loses the ability to do anything for the people who depend on it. For decades, many liberals thought they could ignore the elementary demand of politics - winning elections - because they could go to court to achieve these goals on constitutional grounds. The great thing about legal victories like Roe v. Wade is that you don't have to compromise with your opponents, or even win over majority opinion. But that is also the trouble. An unreconciled losing side and unconvinced public may eventually change the judges.
And now we have reached that point. The Republicans, with their party in control of both elected branches - and looking to create a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that will stand for a generation - see the opportunity to overthrow policies and constitutional precedents reaching back to the New Deal.
That prospect ought to concentrate the liberal mind. Social Security, progressive taxation, affordable health care, the constitutional basis for environmental and labor regulation, separation of church and state - these issues and more hang in the balance.
Under these circumstances, liberal Democrats ought to ask themselves a big question: are they better off as the dominant force in an ideologically pure minority party, or as one of several influences in an ideologically varied party that can win at the polls? The latter, it seems clear, is the better choice.
Rebuilding a national political majority will mean distinguishing between positions that contribute to a majority and those that detract from it. As last year's disastrous crusade for gay marriage illustrated, Democrats cannot allow their constituencies to draw them into political terrain that can't be defended at election time. Dissatisfied with compromise legislation on civil unions and partner benefits, gay organizations thought they could get from judges, beginning with those on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, what the electorate was not yet ready to give. The result: bans on same-sex marriage passing in 11 states and an energized conservative voting base.
Public support for abortion rights is far greater than for gay marriage, but compromise may be equally imperative - especially if a reshaped Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade by finding that there is no constitutional right to abortion and throws the issue back to the states. Some savvy Democrats are already thinking along these lines, as Hillary Clinton showed this week when she urged liberals to find "common ground" with those who have misgivings about abortion.
And if a new Supreme Court overturns affirmative-action laws, Democrats will need to pursue equality in ways that avoid treating whites and blacks differently. Some liberals have long been calling for an emphasis on "race neutral" economic policies to recover support among working-class and middle-income white voters. Legal and political necessity may now drive all Democrats in that direction.
Republicans are leaving themselves open to this kind of strategy. Their party is far more ideologically driven and more beholden to the Christian right than it was even during the Ronald Reagan era. This is the source of the party's energy, but also its vulnerability. The Democrats' opportunity lies in becoming a broader, more open and flexible coalition that can occupy the center.
In the long run, Democrats will benefit from their strength among younger voters and the growing Hispanic population. But the last thing the Democrats need is a revived interest group or identity politics. As the response to Senator Barack Obama's convention speech showed, the party's own members are looking for an expansive statement of American character and national purpose.
Secure in their own lives at home, Americans can be a great force for good in the world. That is the liberalism this country once heard from Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy - and it is the only form of liberalism that will give the Democratic Party back its majority.
Paul Starr is the co-editor of The American Prospect and the
author, most recently, of "The Creation of the
This article appeared originally in The New York Times, January 26, 2005. Copyright The New York Times.