WASHINGTON -- No wonder that John Kerry, after conferring at his Boston mansion with Ted Kennedy in the wee hours Wednesday morning, did not immediately concede the election to George W. Bush before giving up nine hours later. Remote though his chance was of turning around the crucial outcome in Ohio, it seemed to provide a frail final chance of averting total disaster for the Democratic Party.
The devastation of Tuesday's returns cannot be minimized. The transformation of the "Solid South" from Democrat to Republican was completed. Not only were all 11 states of the old Confederacy carried by President Bush, but the pickup of all five Senate seats left vacant by retiring Democrats means 18 of the region's 22 senators are Republican. Domination of Congress by the GOP now enters its second decade with Democrats largely restricted to enclaves on both coasts and some Midwestern industrial areas.
Democrats confront a grim future. Bush's 3.5-million-vote edge in the popular vote reflects a party out of touch with the country on social issues, the role of government and the war against terrorism. Democrats face the bitter reality of minority party status and what to do about it.
Facing reality is difficult because of unjustified confidence among high-level Democrats. All year long I was told by them that Kerry would win comfortably. They dismissed Republican inroads on normal Democratic voters by the same-sex marriage issue. They laughed off warnings from defecting Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia that the party had lost rural America.
This venture into unreality was buttressed by supposedly confidential exit polls that leaked to both presidential campaigns late Tuesday afternoon. They showed Kerry riding a landslide, reversing Bush's 2000 wins in Ohio and Florida -- in Ohio by a big margin. One of Kerry's top political operatives thought the time was appropriate to deliver to me an exposition of what Bush did wrong to lose the presidency.
Well-placed Republicans were not immune from exit poll mania. Based almost entirely on these flawed studies, one of Ohio's leading Republicans gave up when the third and final series of exit polls was leaked around 7 p.m. The gloom was thick, even among professionally cheerful staffers at the Republican National Committee.
Karl Rove, designer and executor of the Bush campaign, moved to avert the panic. He dispatched e-mails noting that the early exit polls in 2000 and 2002 had incorrectly forecast Democratic landslides. This year's polls, he said, were similarly flawed with massive oversampling of women.
Reliance on exit polls is only a surface manifestation of what ails the Democrats. Rove was correct and Democrats guessed wrong in assessing the American mood. A symptom was Democratic belief that former Rep. Tom Coburn in Oklahoma and Rep. Jim DeMint in South Carolina were just too conservative to defeat moderate Democrats for the Senate. In fact, each won easily.
The electorate is simply too conservative for the Democrats, as shown by the defeat of Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. The formula of taking the straight liberal line in Washington and talking conservative at home does not work when a Democrat's every move becomes visible as a member of the leadership.
In the wake of Kerry's unimpressive candidacy, Democrats ponder the alternative of Howard Dean's radicalism that is even further removed from the political mainstream. The more attractive course would be a return to the artful Southerner model of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton -- conservative in style, liberal in substance. But with the Republican sweep in Dixie, there are no such Democrats to choose from -- certainly not Sen. John Edwards, who as vice-presidential candidate exerted no impact in his own state of North Carolina. Sen. Hillary Clinton as the presidential nominee in 2008 would only compound the party's dilemma.
It is Republicans who would be facing internal carnage had Bush been defeated. Karl Rove would have been blamed for catering to the religious right, and the battle to moderate the party would be joined. Instead, the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, socially conservative agenda is ascendant, and the GOP will not abandon it any time soon.