WASHINGTON Demoralized Democrats face an uncertain future after their bruising U.S. election losses, and the soul-searching and finger-pointing already have begun.
A debate raged about whether the party, which suffered its biggest losses in Congress since 1938, needed a dramatic shift in course ahead of President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
Liberal Democrats demanded more confrontation and less compromise with Republicans, while party pragmatists called for bipartisanship and a move to the center after the election rout on Tuesday in which Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and picked up seats in the Senate.
But many Democrats cautioned the election did not mark a fundamental shift toward Republicans, and warned against over-reacting to a result driven by voter unhappiness about the ailing economy and Obama's inability to turn it around.
"This was a protest election. People are angry about economic performance, angry about the president's failure to get the economy going," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "Those suggesting this election represents an ideological shift are simply wrong."
Two years after Obama entered the White House with a promise to change Washington, voters did it for him in a result Obama termed "a shellacking."
Support for Democrats collapsed across the upper Midwest, a crucial building block in Obama's winning 2008 coalition, as blue-collar whites abandoned the party. It also weakened among independents, suburban voters and moderates, while turnout dropped among young and black voters.
Much of the blame was placed on the White House, which many Democrats said never adequately laid out how it would ease unemployment or explained significant achievements like the healthcare overhaul and Wall Street reform.
"What is perhaps most remarkable to me was the inability of the Democrats to mount any kind of coherent argument in the closing months of the campaign," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN.
TIME TO COMPROMISE?
Liberals said compromises on issues like the size of the economic stimulus package and jettisoning a government-run insurance option in the healthcare bill drained Democratic energy and left moderates uncertain of where the party stands.
"Democrats are saddened and demoralized by this policy of appeasement," U.S. Representative Alan Grayson of Florida, who lost his re-election bid, said on MSNBC.
"The center cannot hold. There is no center left. Either you deliver for the people on your side or you're gone. It's that simple," he said.
But Democratic congressional leaders said the lesson of the election was that both parties needed to work together to find solutions on issues like high unemployment and economic stagnation.
"If at the end of the day we play to a draw, achieve little or nothing, and try to celebrate with press releases, the American people will see right through it," Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said of the new Congress. "They want us to roll up our sleeves and find common ground."
For Obama, recent history shows it is possible to win re-election after suffering huge losses in a midterm election. Republican Ronald Reagan did it in 1984 after Republicans lost 26 House seats in 1982, and Democrat Bill Clinton did it in 1996 after Democrats lost 54 House seats in 1994.
POLITICAL BATTLE ROYAL
Clinton managed his comeback by moving to the center and working with Republicans, but Republican congressional leaders have shown little inclination to compromise so far. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says the top party priority will be ensuring Obama is a one-term president.
"The White House has got to figure out an effective and substantive way to work with Republicans. They have to avoid falling into the trap of making this a political battle royal," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said.
In the Senate, where Democrats will have a narrow 53-47 majority in January, Democrats face an even tougher political fight in 2012. They will be defending 23 seats -- including two Democratic-leaning independents -- to 10 for Republicans.
Many of the Democrats up for re-election will be in Republican-leaning states like Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana or battlegrounds like Missouri, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Republican Senator John Cornyn, who headed the party's Senate campaign committee, said before the election he expected Republicans would have to wait for 2012 to retake the Senate.
House Democrats are hopeful they can bounce back in 2012. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will give up her gavel to Republican John Boehner in January, said she would stick around to run for Democratic leader.
"No amount of hand wringing, finger pointing, and excuse making can substitute for listening and learning," said James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat.
Many of the Democrats who lost this time will consider a rematch in 2012 when the political climate might be better.
(Editing by Philip Barbara and Vicki Allen)