After the 1984 election, Democrats could say: The electorate, its palate accustomed to Ronald Reagan's savory personality, would accept no substitute. But in 1988, the Democrats have lost a European-style election: The result reflects less an enthusiasm for the winning candidate than a preference for his party.
The Democratic Party's record is becoming monotonous - if train wrecks can be monotonous.There have been seven "open" (no incumbent president running) elections in this century. Republicans have won six. Since mid-century, Republicans have won seven of 10 elections. They can lose the next three and still have "won" the 1950-2000 era.
In their seven losses since 1950, the Democrats have gone down with six different candidates - four Midwesterners, a Southerner, and now a New Englander (Stevenson twice, Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis).
In his remarkable four victories, Franklin Roosevelt won 88.3 percent of the electoral votes. In their last four victories, the Republicans, using three different candidates, have averaged 91 percent.
Before the first Democratic delegate was chosen, Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster, said the the Democratic nominee should be "a combination of Horace Greeley and Ulysses Grant - someone who can both go West and capture the South." So Democrats chose a Northeastern liberal.
In the 11 states of the old Confederacy, the Democrats record in five of the last six elections (1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988) is: 2 wins, 53 losses. Dukakis won none on Tuesday, which was the third time since 1972 that a Democratic candidate has been shut out in the South. West of the Mississippi there are (not counting Hawaii and Alaska) 24 states. The Democrats' record in the last five elections is: 12 wins, 108 losses.
The adult population is 50 percent larger than it was when Kennedy won in 1960, and the portion that is college-educated has nearly doubled.
The more educated the electorate, the more it feels socially competent, and the less it looks to government for help.
To the extent - and it is a considerable extent - that social programs enacted by the Democratic Party fostered this improvement, to that extent the Democratic Party has eroded its own base.
After the Republicans lost in 1948, they did two things. They slouched into collaboration with a scoundrel (McCarthy) and they went looking for a likable hero (Ike). Heroes are thin on the ground these days (a small price to pay for the scarcity of big hero-making wars).
But Democrats have a mischief-maker in their midst.
Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Jesse Jackson is at their head. For him it will be tempting now to say "I told you so," and resisting temptation is not his vocation. He will say: We tried tepidness, "me-too-ism," courting Reagan Democrats. Now let's try high-octane liberalism.
For four years, the Republican Party is going to be what it has not recently been: boring. The Democratic Party will be what the Republican Party was when, with the conservative insurgency, it began to scale the commanding heights of government. It will be in interesting ferment.
Meanwhile, Americans, ever optimistic, are again thinking about the Harry Truman Paradigm. Truman is America's favorite vindication of the hope that "the office will make the man."
This hope was understood by a novelist who wrote when such democracy was just emerging.
"It is said," mused a character in Trollope's "The Way We Live Now," "that if you were to take a man of moderate parts and make him prime minister out of hand, he might probably do as well as other prime ministers, the greatness of the work elevating the man to its own level."
That is the way we live now - with men of moderate parts, and with immoderate hope.