Gotta say it: That Osama tape had all the earmarks of a Karl Rove phony. Also: Duck hunting in Ohio was a blunder, a Dukakis-in-the-tank moment. And: Gay equality is a just cause, but even though we’re gaining on it, it won’t come without a huge backlash. Finally: Bush won by 3 million votes. The voters, obviously, are not persuaded that they’re on the wrong track, even if they think “the country” is.

I watched Erskine Bowles’ graceful, painful concession speech last night. He is a wonderfully decent man, his supporters all say. Unfortunately, he is exactly the sort of candidate who cannot be elected to national office today–not in North Carolina, not anywhere that I know of. Bowles was all about putting politics aside, working for common-sense solutions, reaching across party lines. You can do that, maybe, after you get there. But you’ll never arrive if you can’t tell people what your starting point is going to be, which is what being in a political party is all about.

Bowles just wasn’t comfortable saying, I’m a Democrat, and here’s why.

This is clearly a conservative state in a conservative country. By conservative, I mean in the traditional sense, which is that change is resisted, and life is tribal. Our biggest tribes are white or Christian or both. They embrace a set of traditions–about families, about sexuality, about “hard work” (invoked incessantly by George W) and “what’s ours is ours”–that are under assault by global economic, social and religious forces. The instinctive tendency is to hunker down and look for the warriors who will protect “us” against “them.”

Within North Carolina, Democrats remain in charge by arguing consistently for a single governmental program that is not tribal but does not threaten the tribe either. That, of course, is education. The more of it we get (the Democrats say), the better the tribe can fend off the economic challenges of India and China. No need, however, to get into sex education, which is the essence of the tribe.

Other than that, however, successful Democrats like Mike Easley, Roy Cooper and Bev Perdue presented themselves this year as more conservative than the GOP. Easley charged that his Republican opponent was for tax increases. Cooper surrounded himself with what looked like storm troopers. Perdue posed on a military base.

Meanwhile, they absolutely divorced themselves from any notion that the global issues facing the tribe might require a more robust set of national programs or a greater commitment to equality for anybody, let alone gays.

That makes the job of saying so all the more difficult, and critical, for national candidates like Bowles–or John Kerry. (Or, going forward, John Edwards.) They can’t just say, well, trust us, we’ll figure it all out on a bipartisan basis and let you know. Not while the Republican blowback is, trust the Democrats and they’ll give you gay weddings in every church and abortion on demand (not just on the q.t., the way we want ’em.) They gotta cut through the crap.