As the new year begins with ritual reflection and resolution, Democrats are consumed with angst, ennui and uncertainty.
Was it the values thing that caused them to lose, or were they too weak on terrorism? Was it something in the way their candidate moved? Sen. John F. Kerry himself posed such questions recently during a Newsweek interview:
"The pundits have never liked me," Kerry said to the reporter. "Is it the way I look? The way I sound?"
The answer to all of the above is, in a word, yes. It was the values thing; it was terrorism; and it was the way Kerry looked and talked - all combined, but none singly.
Democrats won't be able to solve these riddles until they realize that the answer is implicit in the question. In a complex, diverse world, nothing's ever as simple as either-or, any more than America is strictly a red state-blue state nation. Or a metro-retro world.
Kerry and the Democratic Party weren't viewed as either "weak on values" or "weak on terrorism," but were perceived as weak on values and therefore weak on terrorism. In the real world - as opposed to one slapped together by pollsters and electoral cartographers - one doesn't separate core values from the goals one seeks to achieve.
Yes, clearly, Americans are deeply concerned about terrorism and security. And, yes, Americans are deeply concerned about values, though those values are not necessarily measured in terms of specific issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The search for values runs far deeper than the referendum du jour.
They run to the core of who we are, the underlying principles that course through America's red, white and blue veins, the DNA of the USA - honor, constancy and fealty, to name a few. They are the abstractions that undergird the concrete, the qualities we associate with adults, the coagulants of trust.
Come election time, the essential question wasn't whether men should marry men or women should be allowed access to abortion, but which candidate Americans trusted more to do the right thing most often. And which man Americans trusted most to protect them in a world given to madmen (and women) who willingly would blow themselves up for the pleasure of killing Americans.
This is where Kerry's persona came into play. Was it the way he looked? The way he talked? Yes and yes, which poses its own little mystery. In nearly every way, John Kerry seemed born to the presidency. Straight out of central casting, he had the right looks, the right resume, the Purple Hearts.
Everything but "it." The je ne sais quoi of love and politics. We have a hard time defining "it," whateveritis - warmth, humility, sincerity? - but we know when it's absent.