The most important thing now is for Democrats not to panic. Despite what your gut is telling you, this is not the end of the world. The republic survived one run of the George & Dick Show. It will survive another. But I recognize that for those of us who really, really wanted to send President Bush into early retirement, it's hard to stop sobbing long enough to think rationally about the next four years.
The disappointment wouldn't weigh so heavily if the promise of victory hadn't swirled so tantalizingly close. John Kerry's finest days, the period when he looked the most presidential, came during the debates, with the campaign finish line twinkling on the horizon. Throughout October, as the race pulled tighter than Paris Hilton's jeans, Kerry volunteers flooded the purple states to energize their voters--tens of thousands of them newly registered.
And then ... defeat. Now, with the image of Bush's victory speech seared into Democrats' forebrain, the temptation to abandon all hope is almost overwhelming, especially for those who, right up to the end, refused to entertain the possibility of a second term.
Just before Election Day, I quizzed some of my liberal friends about how they would cope with a Kerry loss. Their answers were variations on the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Of course, the more politically obsessive the friend, the more anger and depression were emphasized. One die-hard Bush hater couldn't even contemplate acceptance. "I will be incapacitated," she declared.
Bitterly divided as the country is, many Kerry supporters instead must simply learn how to function at whatever stage of recovery they can attain. I know plenty of folks who plan to nurse their anti-Bush ire, using it as a motivating tool to work even harder for a Democratic victory next time. Such chronic rage may sound unhealthy--but it did the trick for Newt Gingrich's troops in the wake of Bill Clinton's 1992 win.
For some liberals, the first step forward will be less political than personal as they struggle to repair the damage done to relationships with friends and colleagues who backed Bush. "I've sat around listening to people I normally respect talk about how they planned to vote for him, and I just want to shake them," fumed my exceedingly gentle best friend, who spent the summer registering Kerry voters in her suburban Tampa, Fla., neighborhood. But beyond mending fences, my friend had no ideas for how to work through her blues. "It's not like there's really anything you can do--other than move to another country."
Unfortunately, what far too many Democrats will be tempted to do is indulge in the traditional orgy of recriminations over where the party went astray. A strikingly amorphous candidate, Kerry provides more than the usual fodder for Dems' eternal squabble over what they should stand for: moderates can claim Kerry was too liberal to woo swing voters; lefties will say he was too inside-the-Beltway to energize the angry, disillusioned masses; and the increasingly unbalanced Ralph Nader will declare him another loathsome Republicrat slave to corporate America.