Democrats embark on the search for a scapegoat

First defeat, now the recriminations. Having absorbed the body blow of George Bush's re-election, US Democrats exchanged a torrent of conflicting opinions yesterday on what went wrong, why they failed to connect to an electorate clearly disenchanted with the White House incumbent, and what - if anything - they can do to claw back from the minority status that appears to be their fate for the foreseeable future.

Some blamed the candidate, John Kerry, for failing to be clearer in his criticisms of the war in Iraq, and for lacking the personal warmth to connect to wavering voters. Others blamed the general culture of a party which, for the past 15 years, has become so obsessed with electability that it has become embarrassed and uncertain about what it stands for.

Others still said the party had failed to motivate key constituencies - especially blacks and young people - because it had either ignored them or taken them for granted. Yet others chalked it up to disorganisation.

Whatever the emphasis, most party sympathisers agreed on one thing: they face a problem of unprecedented proportions, and they need to come up with a more effective prescription fast if they want to avoid being consigned to utter irrelevance. Simply picking up the pieces and running a new candidate in 2008 - Hillary Clinton, say, or John Edwards - won't in itself be nearly enough.

"It's time to admit that the Democratic Party is in a real crisis, one that won't be solved by a restoration of the Clinton family," the author and political analyst Micah Sifry said. "Some folks understand that and have been trying in various ways to seed new initiatives and new thinking. It's critical that that continue." A consensus is emerging that this election was won on "values" - the sense among many voters that the Republicans stand up for moral rectitude while the Democrats represent a drift towards broken families, sexual perversity and general moral decadence.

Democrats have begun saying that they too must find a way to address the values argument - and win it by casting issues like jobs and health care in moral terms. That, in turn, has given Mr Edwards a platform to further his ambitions, since he was the presidential candidate who best articulated the values question with his vision of unifying two Americas. He came out fighting when he introduced John Kerry ahead of his concession speech in Boston on Wednesday in what was clearly a pitch to take over as the Democrats' reformer-in-chief. "You can be disappointed, but you cannot walk away," he told the party faithful. "This fight has just begun."

This was an immensely frustrating election for Democrats because it was so close and yet the loss was so massive, as Republicans took definitive control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. It was frustrating, too, because the party has done much in the past four years to revitalise its grassroots - largely thanks to George Bush's failings - and achieved record turnout among its supporters.

Some people think Mr Edwards is the man best placed to capitalise on the grassroots movement. Others point out that his vice-presidential candidacy brought nothing to the Democratic ticket - no Southern votes, no rural votes, no youth votes - and that, come January when his Senate term expires, he will be out of a political job, making it harder for him to stay in the limelight.

Another harbinger of a possible future is Barack Obama, the newly elected Senator from Illinois who has rocketed to stardom with his emphasis on inclusion and shared values. Since his election was one of the few Democratic bright spots on Tuesday night, he is likely to enjoy a fast career trajectory on Capitol Hill. Running him for president in 2008, however, looks distinctly premature.

New leadership will also have to come, not least because the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, was defeated in South Dakota. Many feel the party did a better job of criticising Mr Bush than it did of laying out an alternative policy platform. What that platform should be - further to the left, further to the right, more or less combative - is likely to be the subject of intense internal debate.