The President, let’s understand, won a historic victory by committing politics–shrewd, aggressive, old-fashioned, take-no-prisoners politics–while the opposition party did the opposite. That is why Republicans reclaimed control of the Senate and even added to their House majority. They are now in a position to do real damage with long-term consequences for the Republic, from gutting the federal tax code to packing the Supreme Court with more right-wingers, advancing an agenda we continue to believe Americans at large neither want nor support. Nevertheless, progressives should take reality’s cold shower and acknowledge that this was no fluke or fraud like 2000. Bush and his party brilliantly, daringly used what they had to maximum advantage, while the Dems went limp.

The war-and-terrorism presidency trumped all, silenced Democrats and pushed aside other matters from serious examination. Meanwhile, the GOP cleverly co-opted or smothered the issues that threaten them, from the troubled economy to corporate corruption to prescription drugs (the SEC scandal conveniently vanished election night when chairman Harvey Pitt resigned). And Republicans also ran away from the killer issues like their plan for Social Security privatization. But, above all, they played to win.

The Democrats, meanwhile, once again pursued a minimalist strategy, even emptier than their presidential campaign of 2000, and the results were worse than minimal. Let the recriminations begin. At least, we hope they do. Start by demanding the resignation of the national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, who sounded like a fool on television, trying to spin this terrible defeat into not-so-bad news. This is a disaster for the Democratic Party, given the great public issues they had available for a fight but instead turned into mush. The outcome ought to ignite the kind of furious, focused debates that were suppressed by the Clinton era of New Democrats. Organized labor and other vital constituencies need to take a cold shower, too, and recognize that big, noisy conflict is required. Change the leadership (Dick Gephardt’s announcement that he will not run again for House Democratic leader, reported as imminent at presstime, is a good start) and make way for new voices, new thinking. Fire the consultants and pollsters who design these lame, losing strategies. Hire some real-life organizers, who can go out and begin the hard task of reconnecting the party with the American people.

This election should be understood by Democrats as their entry into the wilderness. The results confirmed that they are now a minority party, and they ought to accept that status as a powerful incentive to reargue basic convictions. Republicans, it remains true, are not able to achieve a stable majority either, mainly because their agenda is so far out of sync with what Americans want and need. But Democrats should put aside wishful scenarios for how to regain power and instead take up the question of what the Democratic Party’s vision for the country is. What kind of society do Democrats want to achieve, and how do they expect to get there? Only through intense, freewheeling intraparty argument and genuine inquiry (as opposed to more polls and focus groups) can the Democrats construct substantive goals. And the goals must be real–grounded in people’s everyday experiences and aspirations, not rhetoric concocted for campaign speeches.

These goals lead naturally to an aggressive agenda of reform measures–issues that may well be unwinnable today but that convey a forward-looking sense of what you get if you vote Democratic. Then the party (not unanimously but substantially) has to be willing to fight for those measures, again and again, accepting defeats and sticking to principles, in the knowledge that this is how a revitalized political party builds itself into a majority. Democrats should keep in mind the lesson to be learned from the 1950s and 1960s, when Republicans, habituated to losing Congress, were eventually energized by the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. He lost huge but gave the GOP the sense of conviction that led to its ascendancy.

The Bush triumph has its own vulnerabilities–campaign promises the Republicans do not intend to keep, the public’s growing opposition to war in Iraq, the dangerous economic landscape ahead and, not least, the right-wing agenda, which, until 9/11’s patriotism arose, Americans were not buying and still essentially oppose. The White House will try, as it did so successfully this year, to steer past its political contradictions with relentlessly cynical marketing. Very shortly, we expect Bush to address the economy’s problems with a stimulus package that, however fraudulent, makes him look attentive.

Democrats have the capacity to block the worst of Bush’s plans, and their first test of purpose will be whether they have the backbone to do so. Beyond that, they must begin now to become a fighting minority and reclaim their party.