November 5 may have embarrassed the Democratic Party, but it was a relatively minor tremor, hardly the political earthquake that everyone -- the Republicans, the media and even the Democrats -- is portraying.
The truism that midterm elections are usually won by the opposition party has been bypassed before -- during periods of crisis. The party in power picked up congressional seats in 1934 and 1962 -- during the Great Depression and Cuban Missile Crisis.
Today Americans face a number of grave situations, any one of which qualifies as a crisis. Lingering terror from the Sept. 11 attacks, the dismal spectacle of U.S. troops bogged down in an Afghan quagmire, an imminent invasion of Iraq, and a recession with no end in sight ... take your pick.
Fear tends to reward the party in power -- even when it's caused by the party in power.
Republicans have already declared this election a mandate for fouling the environment, appointing extremist right-wing judges to the federal bench and giving more tax cuts to ultra-rich individuals and businesses. You've got to admire their nerve: a mere 22,000 voters going the other way would have left Democrats with control of both the House and the Senate.
Prior to Election Day the electorate was evenly split with a slight advantage to the Democrats; now the Republicans enjoy that slight advantage. This razor-thin victory bestows no "mandate."
The thoughtful reference to historical precedents and the application of logic have been drowned out by the usual post-electoral wailing and gnashing of self-questioning, self-loathing Democratic teeth.
Americans for Democratic Action, representing the liberal wing of the party, argues that the 2002 election results necessitate a return to the party's traditional left-of-center values -- standing up for ordinary people against predatory corporations.
Democrats, says ADA Director Amy Isaacs, "have to stop running scared. If Democrats articulate a message instead of trying to meet the Republicans in the middle, they can come out victorious."
Meanwhile, the same National Leadership Council, which brought you Clintonian centrism, is urging Democrats to stay the course that carried them to victory in 1992 and 1996. "We live in a country where a plurality of voters are independent, 50 percent are moderate and there are three conservatives for every two liberals," notes the NLC's Al From. "Moving to the left is not going to help us win a majority."
2002 was not Waterloo. On the other hand, ideological soul-searching is long overdue for the Democrats, who since 1976 have primarily devoted their efforts to out-Republicaning the Republicans.
It's a good moment for introspection. The United States currently faces as grave a threat to its founding principles of democracy, equality and justice as it has seen in more than two centuries. Al Qaeda isn't the danger, though the seeds for future terrorism are being planted today by American foreign policy.
The peril derives from a remarkable coalescing of a shortsighted, ill-tempered president advised by authoritarian ideologues; a frightened, passive populace; a lazy, compliant media; and the abdication of meaningful political opposition in order to temper those leaders' most extreme impulses.
That lethal combination has led to a vicious right-wing power grab, curtailed civil liberties and the United States being viewed by other nations as an out-of-control rogue state that needs to be appeased because of its arsenal rather than respected for its good sense.
We survived the Civil War, so we can probably endure two more years of George W. Bush's assaults on the our way of life. But who knows how much damage a "Republican" victory in 2004 would do to core American values -- make no mistake, this obscene junta isn't the patriotic, sane Republican Party of Eisenhower, Reagan or the first President Bush.
"We not only need to know who we are, we need to tell people who we are," says From. Democratic consultant Dane Strother agrees: "Since Bill Clinton left, we don't know who we are."
The struggle over the heart of the Democratic Party dates back to Andrew Jackson. But in 2004 much more is at stake than a few committee chairmanships, or even the White House.
The Democratic Party has just over a year to unify behind a presidential nominee. Whether a liberal or a centrist strategy is chosen isn't as important as it would be if the opponent were less dangerous.
What matters is getting George W. Bush the hell out of Al Gore's house.
Ted Rall's latest book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled To Afghanistan and Back, is now in its second edition.