The Democratic Party was not really ready for this. Democrats have been in the wilderness so long — since Ronald Reagan launched the conservative era 25 years ago — that older liberals began to think it was a life sentence. Bill Clinton was the party's rock star; he made people feel good (and occasionally cringe), but he governed in idiosyncratic ways that accommodated the right and favored small gestures over big ideas. The party adopted his risk-averse style. Its substantive meaning and political strength deteriorated further.
Then George W. Bush came along as the ultimate nightmare — even more destructive of government and utterly oblivious to the consequences.
The 2006 election closed out the conservative era with the voters' blast of rejection. Democrats are liberated again to become — what? Something new and presumably better, maybe even a coherent party.
This is the political watershed everyone senses. The conservative order has ended, basically because it didn't work — did not produce general well-being. People saw that conservatives had no serious intention of creating smaller government. They were too busy delivering boodle and redistributing income and wealth from the many to the few. Plus, Republicans got the country into a bad war, as liberals had decades before.
On the morning after, my 6-year-old grandson was watching TV as he got ready for school. He saw one of those national electoral maps in which blue states wiped away red states. "Water takes fire," he said. Water nourishes, fire destroys. How astute is that? It could be the theme for our new politics.
With Democrats in charge of the House and the Senate, we can now return to a reality-based politics that nourishes rather than destroys. The party's preoccupation with "message" should take a back seat to "substance" — addressing the huge backlog of disorders and injuries produced by conservative governance. This changeover will be long and arduous. But at least it can now begin.
Republicans lost, but their ideological assumptions are deeply embedded in government, the economy and the social order. Many Democrats have internalized those assumptions, others are afraid to challenge them. It will take years, under the best circumstances, for Democrats to recover nerve and principle and imagination — if they do.
But this is a promising new landscape. Citizens said they want change. Getting out of Iraq comes first, but economic reform is close behind: the deteriorating middle class, globalization and its damaging impact on jobs and wages, corporate excesses and social abuses, the corruption of politics. Democrats ran on these issues, and voters chose them.
The killer question: Do Democrats stick with comfortable Washington routines or make a new alliance with the people who just elected them? Progressives can play an influential role as ankle-biting enforcers. They then have to get up close and personal with Democrats. Explain that evasive, empty gestures won't cut it anymore. Remind the party that it is vulnerable to similar retribution from voters as long as most Americans don't have a clue about what Democrats stand for.
The first order of business is taking down Bush. The second front is the fight within the Democratic Party over its soul and sense of direction. These are obviously intertwined, but let's start with Bush and how Democrats can contain his ebbing powers. This is not a philosophical discussion. Events are already moving rapidly.