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Democrats Debate Party's Future

A little more than two weeks after President George Bush won re-election, many Democrats and some prominent Republicans gathered in Little Rock, Arkansas, Thursday for the opening of former President Bill Clinton's presidential library. Democrats remain in a reflective mood after losing two straight presidential elections.

The dedication of the Clinton Presidential Center held some bittersweet moments for Democrats.

They were happy to recall Mr. Clinton's eight years in office, with the exception of the sex and lies scandal involving former White House intern Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment, and nearly to his removal from office, in 1998.

But in reflecting back on the Clinton years, many Democrats hope to find some answers for the party's uncertain future in the wake of President Bush's re-election victory earlier this month.

Former President Clinton seemed to offer some hints about what to do in his speech at the library dedication. He recalled, for example, that he ran a centrist campaign in the 1992 election.

"America has two great dominant strands of political thought," said Bill Clinton. "We are represented up here on this stage. Conservatism, which at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed. And progressivism, which at its very best breaks down barriers that are no longer needed, or should never have been erected in the first place. It seemed to me that in 1992 we needed to do both to prepare America for the 21st century."

Political experts and a number of Democrats say President Bush's victory over Senator John Kerry on November 2 exposed some glaring weaknesses in the Democratic Party's approach to this year's election.

Allan Lichtman is a presidential historian at the American University in Washington. He says one of the lessons of this year's election for Democrats is that they must tell the public what they stand for, not just what they oppose.

"You will never regain your status as the majority party and put yourself in a good position to win elections by thinking, alright, what can I do to attack the other guy," said Allan Lichtman. "George Bush's great strength came out in this election. He has an inner core of convictions. You know where he stands."

Voter surveys show Americans were concerned with terrorism, Iraq and the domestic economy. But they were also concerned with moral values, a range of issues that in recent years favor the Republican Party.

Professor Lichtman says the Democrats must find a way to connect with voters in the south, west and Midwest who often cite moral values a major concern in their everyday lives.

"They have to take the liberalism of [former President] Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and redefine it for the 21st century and make it preeminently moral," he said. "Democrats cannot run away from moral issues. They have to embrace moral issues."

In addition to winning the presidency again this year, Republicans also solidified their majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Now many experts are wondering who will emerge as the main voice of the opposition Democratic Party between now and the next presidential election in 2008.

Stuart Rothenberg is an independent political analyst based in Washington.

"Who do they turn to? Does John Kerry try to assume that role? Will it be Bill Clinton? Will it be Hillary Clinton? Will it be Al Gore? I think that is unlikely," said Stuart Rothenberg. "So, who is it going to be? The Democrats will just have to work through this. It will take a while."