WASHINGTON — If you're in a mood to count your blessings, you might give thanks that your job doesn't require you to give useful advice to the Democrats. What on earth would you tell them?

They've got a White House opponent who is thought, even by many of his supporters, to be an intellectual lightweight. They've watched the opposition lead the country into a war based on the dubious policy that we have the right to strike pre-emptively any country whose regime we don't like — whether they pose a demonstrable threat to us or not. They have seen the economic debate shift from what to do about the budgetary surplus (the issue when the incumbent took office) to how to climb out of economic recession and record-level deficits.

And there's not an issue in the bunch that looks like a winner for their party.

Conservative Republicans continue to set the national agenda. Right-wing media set the tone of the (often nasty) debate. And moderates — liberals have all but decamped — don't know what to do about it.

Part of it is the Democrats' own fault, of course. They lost an election that should have been theirs on a gimme, requiring, for instance, only that their standard-bearer carry his home state — or that the Supreme Court stay out of the matter. I mention that election for a reason. Imagine, if you will, the same airtight campaign with the prize going to the Democrats, helped out in very public ways by officials sworn to neutrality. The outcome would still be discussed in terms of political scandal. "Electiongate," we'd hear. The airwaves would crackle with cries of righteous indignation and accusations of illegitimacy. The Republicans — and most certainly conservative Republicans — simply wouldn't have let the matter die.

The Democrats did.

And while I'm glad they did — we have enough strife without the sort of endless jabbing and rabble-rousing the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson promised to lead in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's delivery of the election to the Republicans — it might serve as an illustration of the differences between the two parties.

On issue after issue, the Republicans have proposed — and the Democrats have compromised. Democratic lawmakers who thought the war in Iraq was premature, at best, couldn't find their voice to say so. Smart moderates who understood well the difference between supporting American soldiers and underwriting White House policy stood largely mute. Few besides West Virginia's Sen. Robert C. Byrd have stood up to decry the president's extraordinary policy of pre-emption, or to point out how dangerous a precedent it sets, for us and the world.

And this is significant: Nobody's paying much attention to the 85-year-old Byrd, the Senate's senior member. And by "nobody" I don't mean only that his impassioned cry — "What is happening? What is happening to us?" — is not generating a response among the electorate. I mean also that it is widely ignored in the mass media. It's as though it is Byrd who is out of order, not the president who makes needless war and leads what the senator describes as "an administration of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy."

The Democrats — except for a few poorly explained blasts against some of the president's judicial appointees — have behaved with admirable decorum.

The problem is that the Republicans haven't, neither in party councils nor on the air. They — at least the most conservative among them — behave as though they are on a mission to transform America, while the Democrats plead only that they not transform it too much.

The zealotry gives the GOP a huge advantage — for example, freeing it of the necessity of explaining its lies and inconsistencies. Note the graphic "proof" of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Nor do they ever seem embarrassed by the gap between their rhetoric and reality. Columnist Arianna Huffington, herself an outspoken conservative, offers a possible explanation:

"The best explanation I can come up with . . . is that we are being governed by a gang of out-and-out fanatics," she wrote recently. "The defining trait of the fanatic — be it a Marxist, a fascist, or, gulp, a Wolfowitz — is the utter refusal to allow anything as piddling as evidence to get in the way of an unshakable belief."

Maybe that explains the Republicans. Now will someone explain the Democrats?


William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.