It's fitting that Republicans lost the presidential election behind a former Massachusetts governor, because the outcome has left the GOP in the same position as Democrats after they lost in 1988 behind then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
In each case, the defeat stripped away comforting excuses and confronted the losing party with the stark message that its agenda and coalition, as currently constructed, could not win a presidential majority except in unusual circumstances.
With Mitt Romney's defeat, Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the previous six presidential elections (with the asterisk that George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000). After Dukakis's loss to George H.W. Bush, the Democrats had the same dubious record in the six elections from 1968 to 1988.
During those wilderness years, Democrats found many reassuring explanations for their failure. The most common was to blame the losses on the personal deficiencies of their candidates, particularly when they were contrasted with the jaunty personal appeal of Ronald Reagan, who won landslides in 1980 and 1984.
The 1988 election proved such a watershed for Democrats precisely because Bush was not nearly as compelling a politician as Reagan. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., with his inimitable timbre that mixed Harvard and Hell's Kitchen, expressed the Democratic view at one fundraiser when he sniffed that if Democrats could not beat Bush, they should "find another country" to run in. When Bush nonetheless trounced Dukakis, Democrats were compelled to acknowledge that the GOP message had broader appeal than the Democrats' fading New Deal liberalism. Only then did the party fully commit to the painful reassessment that produced the centrist New Democrat movement and Bill Clinton's victory four years later.