Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was barely into his post-Election Day press conference when he smiled and said, “I know I cost the Bush family a little money.” Spoken like a true fundraiser. He meant that the Democrats, by mounting what seemed to be a competitive campaign in Florida against Governor Jeb Bush, had forced the Republicans to spend more money and time than they had planned to defend the President’s brother. On a bad-news morning, McAuliffe cited this as an accomplishment.

What a straw to grasp! Fellow Democrats, feel good today, we caused a bout of indigestion at the House of Bush. No doubt, the election results–with the Senate swinging Republican–was one giant roll of Tums for the Bushies. McAuliffe then went on to proudly describe how the party in 2002, under his guidance, spent three times as much as it ever has on midterm elections. Again, spoken like a fundraiser. McAuliffe hailed the grassroots structure he developed, and the record amount of small-donor money the party bagged.

McAuliffe also talked up Democratic pickups in gubernatorial contests. But what he didn’t mention was message. In fact, he argued that message was not the issue. The Republicans’ edge, he insisted was “tactical, not ideological.” What had turned the election, in his estimation, was George W. Bush’s relentless campaigning on behalf of GOP candidates. Worse, those sly Republicans had used hundreds of millions of dollars in special interest money to blur the differences between Republicans and Democrats on prescription drugs and Social Security. McAuliffe maintained the election results “do not reflect an ideological shift” and that the nation is in the “same place” as it was after the 2000 election: “50-50 parity.”

McAuliffe has spinned himself into delusion. It’s true that that the Republicans achieved their macro win in the Senate by squeaking by in a few close contests (while adding to their majority in the House). But what happened to McAuliffe’s old line that the Ninny-in-Chief and his fellow Republicans were going to be routed by a combination of Democrats outraged over Florida (including still pissed-off African-Americans) and voters upset over their most recent 401(k) statements? The United States may remain a 50-50 nation–though it feels more like 52-48 at the moment–but within that split culture, Bush has proven he is a political power, and the Democrats have demonstrated they have no juice. This is not the “same place” as post-2000. Bush has been affirmed–as has his agenda.

Message matters. Bush had one: support me, the war, and tax cuts. That was pretty straightforward. The Democrats offered, we’re not Bush and vote for us if you’re anxious about the economy even though we don’t have a comprehensive plan for dealing with it. Not much of a bumper sticker there. Besides, we’re-not-Bush is not a great plan when the President is scoring approval ratings in the mid-60s. “Ultimately,” Senator Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (who joined McAuliffe at the press conference), observed, “we could not compete with the bully pulpit and a wartime president.” Now she tells us.

One reason the Dems couldn’t compete was that they had no overarching theme that cut through the clutter of the campaign. Democrats did little to differentiate themselves from Bush and the GOP on war and tax cuts, and they made it easy for the Republicans to muddy the distinctions in issue areas where Democrats traditionally possess an advantage. Take health care. If the Democrats are only proposing a prescription drug benefit for seniors–and not a more comprehensive initiative, such as universal health coverage–then the GOPers can easily cook up their own proposal and play the Democrats to a tie.

The Democrats failed to exploit the wave of corporate crime and the growing gap between the corporate class and the rest of America. Bush ended up going along with the modest legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate. Couldn’t the Democrats come up with measures too tough for Bush to accept? Moreover, the Democratic Party, which eagerly pockets corporate contributions, has failed in recent years to establish itself as an institution that steadily stands up to corporate excesses and champions the interests of workers, investors, and consumers. The public recognizes that Democrats are generally less in bed with corporate special interests than Republicans. But it does not–nor should it–see Democrats as righteous opponents of corporate favoritism and political corruption. As soon as the Enron scandal broke, Republicans were quick with the newsclips showing that Democrats had taken money from Enron execs and that high-profile Democrats (paging Joseph Lieberman) had previously done the bidding of the accounting industry and blocked real reform. Remember James Carville and other Democratic strategists crowing at the start of 2002 that Enron would do in the Republicans? That corporate malfeasance would overshadow the war on terrorism as an issue in the 2002 elections? That was a pipe dream. But especially so with the Democrats’ mixed record.

Mixed record–that’s true of the Democrats on many important matters, such as the war against Iraq and Bush’s millionaire-friendly tax cuts. While McAuliffe was shaking the money trees, he neglected to craft an unmixed message for his candidates. Neither did the two other party leaders: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. In the words of Al Gore, it is time for them to go. (Probably Gore, too. We’ll get to him in a moment.)

For four elections in a row, Gephardt has failed to win back the House. This time out, he demonstrated he had no clue as to what might be an effective strategy. His strategy of embrace-the-President flopped. And it was not easy to tell whether his actions were motivated by his presidential ambitions or his leadership responsibilities. (To be fair, he probably found it tough to sort that out himself.) And what did Daschle do as majority leader to improve the Democrats’ chances on November 5? He failed to use the Democrats’ control of the Senate to develop a compelling and discernible agenda.

Certainly, it may be too difficult for any Democratic leader to ride herd over a party that is so ideologically disparate that it can be home to both Paul Wellstone and Zell Miller. This is a party that is gridlocked, at war with itself over Iraq and Bush’s tax cuts. But that’s the challenge of leadership, and neither McAuliffe, Daschle nor Gephardt has figured out how to do it.

It’s time for regime change. (New reports based on confidential sources are already saying Gephardt is poised to quit as Democratic House leader to explore a White House bid. I don’t see how he turns a four-in-a-row losing streak into a successful presidential campaign.)

While we’re on the subject of change at the top, Gore does not look swell the day after. Where was the Election 2000 anger that was supposed to be an asset for Democrats? Jeb Bush stomped the Democrats in Florida. And African-American voters–who supposedly were the most enraged about the recount mess–do not seem to have flooded the polls on behalf of Democrats in Florida, Georgia, Maryland or Massachusetts. In Georgia, Republican congressman Saxby Chambliss upset Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a decorated war hero. In Maryland–a state with a five-to-one Democratic edge in voter registration–Republican Bob Ehrlich trounced Democratic Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In Massachusetts, Republican Mitt Romney defeated Democratic Treasurer Shannon O’Brien. As even Democratic loyalist (and apologist) Donna Brazille complained before the election, Democrats were practicing “drive-by” politics, zooming past urban voters (meaning African-Americans) and trying to appeal to suburban swing voters. That’s another way of saying the Democrats had no message to inspire a crucial bloc.

To bring it back to Gore, if Democratic outrage is no longer a force, his prospects diminish. While Gore did take strong exception to Bush’s dash to war, he, too, tried to bash Bush on the economy without developing any alternative. During the campaign, he delivered a speech in Washington that lambasted Bushonomics, but refused to say what he would do about Bush’s tax cuts. His big idea: call on Bush to change his economic team.

If the current Democratic leaders took a powder, could Senator Harry Reid, the Democrats’ number-two in the Senate, or Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority whip, do any better? There is no easy way out for the Democrats. But the flip answer is, can they do worse? Neither Daschle nor Gephardt were able to capture the imagination of the public, at a time when, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, Democratic Party identification is declining faster than Republican Party identification. And at the DNC, why stick with Terry McBucks, a slick Clinton holdover obsessed with money over message?

The Democrats would be unwise to leave the party in the hands of a man who believes that what derailed Democrats on November 5 was mainly the “tactical” problem posed by Bush. After all, who does he think the Democrats will be running against next time?