CBSNews.com chief political writer
Post-election soul searching and self-flagellation is threatening to boil over into a civil war within the Democratic Party. After losing two close presidential races in a row, interviews with key Democrats in the days following President Bush's re-election indicate a party unsure of its identity.
Leon Panetta thinks going to the political left is a mistake. Joe Trippi thinks it's the only way for the party to overtake Republicans.
"Everybody is going to start shooting each other," said Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean. "That's how the Democratic Party works, which may be a healthy thing."
A war of ideas has begun between Democratic strategists. Will the Democrats be the centrist party of Bill Clinton or the progressive party of Howard Dean?
"I think the party of Roosevelt became the party of Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11," said Panetta, the former chief of staff to President Clinton and head of the Panetta Institute. "There will be a real push to move the party more to the left and that would be a serious mistake because that's not where the country is.
"We've learned in the past if we are going to compete nationally, if we are going to appeal to Americans across the country, we've got to speak to issues that affect the middle class and not just speak to issues on the left," Panetta continued. "That's the battle that is going to take place."
Democrats feel circumstances were ideal to defeat President Bush. The primary justification for the war in Iraq – weapons of mass destruction – has been debunked. Iraq remains unstable. The U.S. deficit is at a record high. And Democrats remained in a fever over their belief that they were cheated out of the White House in the 2000 election.
"What is the missing link? I happen to think there was a perfect storm here. Why didn't we win? Why didn't we connect?" asks Tony Coehlo, a former congressman who ran Al Gore's campaign early in 2000.
"People relate to individuals more than to ideas and concepts and whether they like that or not that has always been the case," Coehlo continues. "Look, they related to Bill Clinton more than they did papa Bush. They liked him even though when he was elected in 1992 there were some claimed faults. You can sit there and talk about faith and values. Bill Clinton had some negatives but they still went with him by a big margin. Faith and values is part of it."
According to exit polling, moral values were preeminent in the minds of one-fifth of voters.
President Bush's chief political strategist Karl Rove saw this coming. He banked Mr. Bush's reelection on one principle: in times of national security and cultural upheaval, Americans want a president they believe embodies their values.
It was neck-and-neck race, but for the first time in U.S. history as many Republicans turned out as Democrats. Rove was vindicated.
Democrats, conversely, are in a sort of political mourning. "There are 12 stages of acceptance. We are in the first stage here but we are going to get over this stage pretty quick," said Bob Boorstin, senior vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Democrats remain unsure of the lesson of 2004. Trippi doesn't believe it's that the party can't win with an Eastern liberal. "Look at John F. Kennedy," he said. But most disagree, suggesting that America is now a different country.
The 1988 loss of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and the 2004 loss of Massachusetts Sen. Kerry have the party looking South and West. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton came from the South, and won Southern states.
"The Democratic Party cannot compete in a national election without being able to go after that big bloc of red states through the South and Midwest. If it just picks at the margins we will always lose national elections," Panetta said. "The next candidate will have to be somebody who comes from that part of the country, either a Bill Clinton who understood that part of our country, or someone who can basically speak to those issues."
Trippi is quick to rebut that line of reasoning. Like Jesse Jackson, who earlier this week called for Democrats to "retake the moral high ground with the working class," Trippi said it's time for the party to reclaim core Democratic values.
"It's a lot like what happened after Goldwater in the Republican Party. They just went out and stated the conservative principles they were willing to fight for from that point on," Trippi continued. "It took them a long time, but look where they are. We can't run away from our core Democratic principles. If we do, we shouldn't exist anymore.
"I'm not a Democratic Party insider and it's one reason I went with Howard Dean, trying to change the party from within," he said. "The party establishment made the decision they wanted this guy. They got him. And the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and that's the Democratic Party right now and if it doesn't change, the big problem is that a lot of people will say, 'hey, if this party doesn't wake up, I'm leaving.'"
What party leftists and centrists do agree on is that the next Democratic candidate must capture the imagination of voters.
"What I continually felt was that Gore didn't project a comfort with himself. He was extremely bright, a wonderful person, but he didn't project inner peace; and Kerry this time, same thing," Coelho said. "It doesn't mean they don't have it. It just means they didn't project it."
In many respects, the year of the Pragmatic Democrat has left the party wondering if pragmatism is enough. While many long for a candidate with the charisma of Bill Clinton, they also look for a 2008 nominee who can speak to security as well as morality.
Democrats want a candidate to unify and galvanize. And if the nominee is a child of the South, all the better, said Panetta. He added, though, that the power to inspire is primary.
"George Bush, in his own strange way, has charisma that appeals to his constituents. And if you are going to have a candidate at the national level, it isn't enough that he speaks well to the issues. We should have learned that with Adlai Stevenson. It's going to take more than that," said Panetta. "The candidate has to have a little pizzazz. You've got to be able to make people's blood move."