WEST OF BISMARK, N.D. - I'm on I-94 heading westward toward Bozeman, Mont., where we'll visit our two little granddaughters for 24 hours before making for Ashland and concluding a political journey to Wisconsin - one of the election's battleground states.
The beige and purple vastness outside the window is a serene counterpoint to clamoring talking heads who, like CNN's normally lucid Jeff Greenfield, declared - within minutes after the presidential election was determined - that he was quite sure the Democratic Party has something fatally wrong at its core.
I beg to differ. (Incidentally, Mr. Greenfield was nowhere in sight this past month as I met people from the dairy towns, manufacturing cities and fishing villages of Wisconsin. He was in the Big Apple, ensconced in CNN's hermetically sealed studios.) I say there is nothing wrong at the core of a party that registers millions of new voters to vote - and hundreds of thousands of citizens to campaign - for the first time.
Nor is it a sign that something is amiss at a party's core when it transforms tens of thousands of Gen-X'ers (who saw no point in voting four years ago) into tough, smart, tenacious activists who are gearing up even now for 2008.
Part of the human comedy is that election victors inevitably over interpret their victories and losers, their losses. Wiser heads know that nothing in politics lasts forever and that among the shards of broken election night dreams can be found the elements of a resurgent political order. It's Newton's First Law of Motion at work in politics - every action creates an equally forceful counteraction.
Consider a postelection message from Emily Farris of Brooklyn, N.Y., (You haven't heard of her? You will.) Four years ago Farris was a self-described apathetic, 18-year-old nonvoter. But this year she founded Swing the States, a web-based clearing house for young people who knew their state's presidential outcome was a foregone conclusion and wanted to work - for a weekend, a week, a month - in a swing state. Swing the State volunteers matched thousands of these young people with Democratic organizers in the key battlegrounds.
In a postelection e-mail to her legions, she wrote: "Was your (Nov. 3) like mine? Many tears and lots of Dylan. Just because John Kerry lost doesn't mean we didn't change the world. We put our hearts, souls, time, energy and money into something we believed in and still believe in. We are the future of this country and if we keep up the energy and commitment that we have had this past year there will be no stopping us!"
And guess what? Swing the State activists are scheduled to meet to draw up a four-year plan to expand into all 50 states.
This energy, Mr. Greenfield, is one of many signs that, at its core, the Democratic Party is unbowed, energized and prepared to fight for its principles and this nation's soul.
Only the timid and the Tories in the party can spoil this. If they try to make "near-beer" out of the party, a whole generation of turned-on kids - the Democrats' future - will be tuned out and turned off. So will millions of meat-and-potatoes voters who, under the reactionary and reckless Bush economic policy, will see their families' battered economic interests aligned with Democrats in 2006 and 2008. You heard it here first.
Garrison Keillor says Democrats are like deciduous trees - they fade and wane occasionally but when the season is right, their sap rises. Trust me friends, Democrats may have narrowly lost this election but their sap is up and it's likely to keep rising as George Bush pushes the GOP's reactionary agenda even harder. My month-long trek to and from the Midwest brooks no other conclusion.
But George Bush says he has won a "mandate." Only a man who first slipped into the White House with a majority of his countrymen opposed to him could call a 51 percent victory a mandate.
Others say Bush won this election by deftly manipulating conservative social issues and fear of war. Yes, but this is not likely to work when Bush deficits drive up interest rates, create deflation, leave millions of additional Americans out of work, and innumerable others unable to pay their bills - while the well-off enjoy their tax breaks, Ferraris, exotic vacations and the best schools.
The lesson for Democrats in this election comes from the words of Winston Churchill, that served England so well in the darkest days of World War II:
"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer, professor and political commentator. He served for 18 years in the U.S. Congress and is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org