Democrats desolate at Mondale's last hurrah


US: The sense of futility felt by Minnesota's Democrats echoed all across the US, writes Matthew Engel in St Paul

The last hurrah of the ageing leader is an ancient motif of US politics. Even in normal circumstances the tears are never far away when a once-great figure goes down to his final defeat.

The brief, bizarre and tragedy-tinged closing chapter of Walter Mondale's career came to an end in a hotel ballroom when he conceded defeat, with grace and good humour, to the brash and breezy Republican Norm Coleman, the new Senator from Minnesota.

Then the 74-year-old former vice-president and presidential candidate shuffled off the stage, literally and figuratively, back to the comfortable oblivion he left less than two weeks ago. By then the hall was deserted, except for the media and 100 or so remaining supporters, to whom this was the final moment of desolation.

Mr Mondale came out of retirement to take over the campaign of Paul Wellstone, former senator and standard-bearer of the Democratic Party's left, who was killed in a plane crash. Wellstone's supporters were kept going through their grief by the adrenaline of battle and the determination to win in his memory. Now, at last, many broke down and hugged each other, silent except for their sobs.

At the end of a terrible fortnight for them, and a terrible night for their party, there was nothing anyone could say. Mr Mondale spoke to young activists, who in Minnesota had been galvanised by Wellstone's uncomplicated and unfashionable sense of injustice.

"It's important for you to know that your ideals are tested more in defeat than victory," he said. "This is not the end but the beginning of what you can do. You will be needed now more than ever. You are the future. Stand up and keep fighting."

Fighting for what, though? During the long night, well before the reality of their own defeat had set in, there was a sense of futility developing among the Minnesotan Democrats. It can only have been echoed, if a little less passionately, elsewhere in the country.

Historically, mid-term results provide no guide to the next presidential election. There is no reason why a new Democratic leader should not arise and mount a credible challenge in 2004, especially now that George Bush, with his party in full control of Congress, can have no one else to blame.

But there is no credible leader. A new truncated timetable for presidential primaries makes it extremely hard for an outsider to overhaul a well-known and well-funded challenger, which means that if Al Gore wants to run again two years hence he may already be unstoppable.

This seems like yet more bad news to many Minnesotan Democrats. "Gore's too much of a compromiser; he weighs things too much," Tom Egan, a website designer, said. "He sticks his finger in the air and waves it around."

"I wouldn't vote for Gore," said Paul Czarnezki, a student. "I don't think he emphasises the issues that core Democratic voters care about." The feeling extends even into the upper reaches of the party. "I like Al a lot but I don't think he's the right man now," said Pat O'Connor, a Minneapolis lawyer and former Democratic national treasurer.

The same kind of message appeared on the CNN screens. "We've got to just stand for something," party strategist James Carville said. "No one made the case."

Had Mr Mondale won, he would have at least provided a rallying point for the party in Washington. Now there seems no one. The Gore camp is at odds with the Clintons; Tom Daschle, de facto frontman for this campaign but now the former Senate majority leader, looks like damaged goods, as does Dick Gephardt, the party's leader in the House of Representatives.

There are plenty of other wannabes in the Senate, but it is hard to imagine figures such as Joe Lieberman, Mr Gore's running-mate in 2000, John Kerry of Massachusetts or John Edwards of North Carolina developing a national momentum before the primaries.

Among the state governors, where the Democrats actually made gains, the picture is even bleaker. The ambitious Roy Barnes of Georgia was the most unexpected loser of the entire night. And the party's newest star, Jennifer Granholm, the former beauty queen just elected governor of Michigan, turns out to have been born in Canada, making her constitutionally ineligible to be president.

The party's first task will be to agree what went wrong. This may not be easy. Centrists seem to be regrouping around the view that they allowed themselves to be painted as unpatriotic.

This is being tied not so much to Iraq as to the president's attempt to reorganise the homeland security bureaucracy. The Democrats in Congress resisted this, largely at the instigation of unions which thought it an attempt to savage working conditions.

President Bush replayed this theme endlessly, and it may have been a factor in Georgia, where the disabled Vietnam veteran Max Cleland lost his Senate seat.

But this may be too specific. Voters respond to leaders they like and trust. Though loathed by a not insignificant minority as a foolish usurper, Mr Bush reaches out to the less committed, as Ronald Reagan did, by making them sense that he empathises with them. This appeal transcends any issue except national security.

In Minnesota the recriminations will focus on Wellstone's memorial service, at which the eulogies turned into over-the-top campaign speeches, galvanising the Republicans and alienating floating voters.

And across the US this morning the Democratic Party stands not beyond hope, for sure, but close to despair in its inability to grasp how hope can possibly be turned into victory. - (Guardian Service)