After World War I a French general was asked how one beats the Germans. "Retreat and retreat," was the reply, "and wait for the German mistake."
Last week, the Democrats recaptured the Congress by waiting for the Republicans to make enough mistakes to defeat themselves. With Karl Rove's once-fearsome blitzkrieg bogged down in a catastrophe in Iraq, with incompetence in New Orleans and with corruption in Washington, Democrats were the default option for disgusted voters.
That the Democratic Party doesn't stand for a clear alternative program is a political cliche, and a source of frustration for those liberals who think of themselves as the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
Yet history teaches us that watershed elections - those that change the fundamental direction of the nation - are typically a result of voter rejection of the "ins" rather than the appeal of the ''outs." Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 - preceded by Democratic congressional gains in 1930 - was a reaction to Herbert Hoover's handling of the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 - foreshadowed by Republican gains in the 1978 congressional election - resulted from voter unhappiness with Jimmy Carter's stagflating economy and the humiliation of American hostages held in Iraq.
Having been elected as the only alternative in our two-party system, both men changed the country's course in ways that outlasted their presidency. Roosevelt's New Deal created a social contract supported by government interventions to recharge economic growth and to spread its benefits more equitably. For the next half-century, Republicans who came to power might reduce the speed toward a more social democratic future, but they could not change the direction. Federal aid to housing, transportation and education, welfare assistance and environmental protection were substantially, if at times reluctantly, pursued by Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
Similarly, Bill Clinton's two presidential terms played out in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. Clinton's major accomplishments: welfare reform, free-trade agreements, financial deregulation, privatization and federal budget restraints were all part of the Republican agenda. Clinton's proposal for universal health insurance was a child of more Democratic inspiration, but was still-born in the conservative political atmosphere created by Reagan. Since then the Democrats' ambitions have steadily shrunk.
Today, the conservative tide is ebbing on all major fronts. Reagan's rhetorically muscular but operationally cautious foreign policy has deteriorated into George W. Bush's crude and reckless imperialism. Reagan's agenda of tax cutting and reducing government has sunk into an orgy of looting of the Treasury by corporate cronies. And the alliance with the religious right on family values has morphed into fanatical attacks on science and education that has frightened the middle class.
After the 1930 congressional elections, Democrats developed a pool of "utopian" ideas to attack the Depression - Social Security, public works jobs, and massive hydroelectric projects - that Roosevelt eventually implemented. In the years just before Reagan's victory in 1980, Republicans in the Congress promoted the notions that fighting inflation required drastically shrinking government and that tax cuts to the rich pay for themselves.
The Democrats now have a historic opportunity to lay the groundwork for regaining in 2008 the right to lead the country into the future that they lost 25 years ago. The first step is to slough off the habit of intellectual passivity with which they survived the Reagan era, and begin to build a case for bold solutions that match the scope of the problems the nation now faces.
The health-care crisis demands a system of universal coverage. The fiscal deficits require higher taxes. The trade deficit calls for a new approach to globalization. And the quagmire in Iraq requires pulling out. Yes, the opposition will inevitably charge "socialism" "tax and spend" "protectionism" and "cut and run." If this intimidates the Democrats, the opportunity will pass them by.
Waiting for the German mistake may have been useful strategy for the French in World War I, but as it turned out it was not of much help when the next war came along.