Politics doesn’t grant any long mourning periods. Democrats have to shake off the postelection blues–now–and begin agitating among themselves to create a very different party. The first challenge is the selection of a new chair to lead the Democratic National Committee. That contest is usually a ho-hum event, but this year is different. Democrats have sunk so low, the position can become an important starting point for restoration.

If you think the present party apparat did a great job in November, consider the following: How was it that, when 52 percent of Americans believed the war in Iraq was going badly, Democrats ended up with a candidate who couldn’t make a convincing case to change the Commander in Chief? How was it that, when even Warren Buffett says US trade deficits have entered the danger zone, Democrats ended up with a candidate who could not hang misguided free-trade policies around Bush’s neck? How was it that, even as Democrats won major breakthroughs in Western states, their presidential candidate lost the entire Rocky Mountain West? The answer is that Democrats in Washington do not have the answers. The party will never get back on track with a DC player at the helm, or with DC pollsters and consultants guiding its agenda or strategy. Dems must reconnect with the energy at the grassroots, holding councils in every county.

For that reason, we urge the DNC members to choose an outsider as their next chair–someone with the stature and personal confidence to get the party to engage in vigorous self-criticism and freewheeling bottom-up venting of insights and ideas. Howard Dean, who is interested in the job, would bring those qualities to it, but so might others–even someone who is not a “politician” but an authentic leader in other spheres.

In a TV interview recently, Illinois Senator-elect Barack Obama described his ideal candidate: “He’s got to be an honest broker within the Democratic Party, to ask the right questions and to help generate some of the work that needs to be done on the policy and message front.” In other words, someone who’ll let in fresh air to reinvigorate the party’s thinking and purpose. That challenge, Obama emphasizes, requires “hard intellectual work.” It also needs a serious commitment to open-ended listening and learning among real-life citizens–not more polls, focus groups, policy papers. That means a sustained and very public dialogue with all kinds of Americans.

The party should rethink how it chooses its nominees. The national convention has been purposely emptied of substantive content. A self-confident party is not afraid of intramural debate and extended contests by serious challengers. Yet the Democratic establishment frontloaded the 2004 primary season to produce a quick resolution and shut down debate. Reform the primary calendar. Why are New Hampshire and Iowa given such overbearing influence on the outcome? Why not schedule a couple of industrial states–Ohio maybe–in a position of early influence? A more ambitious reform might construct a series of six or eight regional primaries designed to encourage a longer and more rational season that reflects the country’s rich variety and encourages wide expression of our differences.

In the long run, substance matters far more than process. But for now, Democrats must think hard about what kind of processes might make them contenders again.