While premier, Dick Seddon didn't lose an election (he won five on the trot). His opponents became disheartened. After one defeat, a journalist told him the Opposition were claiming a "moral victory". King Dick thundered that they were welcome to a moral victory anytime, so long as the results stayed the same. These days it's parties of the left that are more inclined to make such claims. I recall days when Labour suffered a lengthy losing streak and we were told we had actually enjoyed "moral victories". In our self-indulgence we were saved from having to re-think policies or analyse why we disconnected with the voters. There's a touch of arrogance about such analysis. The voters, by implication, are either immoral or selfish. The cry "no compromise with the electorate" reassures losers, but it's never been an infallible guide to future success.
The "M" word has been much used around the United States since 5 November when the Democrats went down to their fifth straight loss in the House of Representatives, this one bigger than the last. There was nothing wrong with policy, they say; no failure in the salesmanship (although Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle did concede the "articulation" could have been better). In many Democratic minds there is nothing that an infusion of a few extra grey cells into voters' heads, and a visit or two to church, couldn't fix. Others, however, have been less charitable. In an effort to excuse his own poor performance in rousing African-Americans (only 10% nation-wide seem to have bothered to vote) Jesse Jackson accused the Democratic leadership of being all white, all male, and incapable of marshalling a team. Several academics called for the heads of Daschle and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic chairman.
All of it, sadly, is evidence that the Democrats are in a deep hole, much of it due to their own digging. Having won only three of the last nine presidential elections, and enjoying congressional majorities increasingly rarely, the party of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton often seems an irrelevance. It looks capable only of blocking tactics, and loud noise, much of it cacophonous. Plus, of course, the self-defeating nostrums of yesteryear like higher taxes and bigger central government.
Defining what we mean by the Democratic Party is itself a problem. It spans the whole spectrum from conservatism to radicalism. Some wealthy Americans support it; so do the homeless in the unlikely event someone gets them to enrol and vote. Policy definition when the party contains such extremes is a fraught process, even in good times. When out of office and minus the White House's "bully pulpit", it is harder still. Even now the party contains some inspiring individuals like Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jimmy Carter, and his thoroughly decent, if aged vice-president, Walter Mondale, who emerged briefly from retirement to lose the Minnesota Senate seat. But no Democrat after 2000 was able to generate political momentum. They couldn't produce a credible tax policy to counter the President's. After Nine Eleven the Bush White House left their opponents nagging in the rear. Democrats constantly complained about the prospect of war in Iraq, although half their senators and many congressional representatives voted for it. And in the current security-conscious mood, it proved impossible to convince voters that the President, his co-religionists, and his court nominees, posed any threat to a decent society - whatever that is.
Around the world many opposition parties are currently struggling. Voters seem impervious to their messages as they clutch tightly what they have. Iain Duncan Smith's British Tories, Simon Crean's Australian Labor Party, and Bill English's Nationalists are all on the ropes. But a week is a long time in politics, and two years an eternity. We can't underestimate the well-greased Republican machine that left nothing to chance this time, but George W. Bush is walking a tightrope under which there could yet prove to be no safety net in 2004. An Iraq war is a gamble. Saddam will be toppled. But what happens on day two when corrupt Saudi Arabia begins to fall apart, an even more corrupt Pakistan flares again, Palestine rages, and Iran fishes in troubled waters? The word "quagmire", used to describe America's dilemma in Vietnam, could be heard again. And with the American economy weakening every day, it may take more than a re-polished Republican machine to keep voters happy, especially if one of the bright young faces now in the Senate or governors' mansions emerges as Democratic leader.
Eventually the political wheel will turn, and Democrats will conclude that voters have regained their senses. But is this empty-headedness the best that the modern American left has on offer: contempt for voter intelligence most of the time, and a victory every six or seven elections? The rich tapestry of America should be capable of better.
Michael Bassett is completing his term as Fulbright Professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.