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Where the Democrats go from here

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As dispirited Democrats take stock of across-the-board electoral losses and begin an inevitable bout of soul-searching and recriminations, they might take comfort in reflecting on the position of Republicans in 1976.

President Gerald Ford had just lost the White House to Jimmy Carter, and with memories of Watergate still fresh, many Republican officials worried that their party faced permanent marginalization. Some even suggested changing the party's name, believing "Republican" had become a political albatross.

"People were writing the obituary for the Republican Party," says Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College and author of "The Losing Parties."

Four years later, with President Carter plagued by long gas lines and the Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan swept into office and launched a new period of GOP dominance.

The point isn't that Democrats have nothing to worry about. This week's defeats - spanning the White House, seats in both houses of Congress, and state legislatures - came despite the party's best-funded and best-organized effort in history. Although the country remains divided, Republicans have clearly expanded their electoral majority, with Democrats facing a growing challenge among certain regions and demographic groups.

But while the losses hold sharp implications for the future direction of the Democratic Party - and will probably shape which candidate it chooses for its next nominee - history shows that often a party's chance of recapturing the White House and rebounding in Congress is dictated less by what it does than by events and how the party in power handles them.

"Democrats clearly need to reassess what they're about and what they're doing," says Mr. Klinkner. "But what it's really going to come down to is what kind of job Bush does over the next four years," he says. "And in that sense, the Democrats are going to have to be reactive."

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