Dreadful news -- the worst. All the 9/11 nuts have relocated to Stolen Election. My inbox is awash. People who have spent the last three years sending me screeds establishing to their own satisfaction that George Bush personally ordered the attacks on the Trade Towers and that Dick Cheney vectored the planes in are now pummeling me with data on the time people spent online waiting to vote in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and how the Diebold machines are all jimmied.

            As usual, the nuts think that conspiracies of inconceivable complexity worked at 100 percent efficiency, that Murphy's Law was once again in suspense, and that 10,000 co-conspirators are all going to keep their mouths shut.

            Do I think the election was stolen? No more than usual. The Democrats are getting worse at it, and the Republicans better. Back in 1960, it was the other way around, which tells you a lot about the decline of the Democratic Party. The best-documented stolen election in history is probably the one that put Lyndon Johnson in the U.S. Senate. Next came the one that put JFK in the White House. So, for sure there's vote suppression and funky machines in Ohio and Florida. But I don't think they made any crucial difference.

            "Stolen election" is one way to divert attention from the fact that the Democrats had a lousy candidate and gave up on most of the country, investing everything in two or three states, and often in only a few counties in those states. Ohio is a good example. Small wonder they lost the popular vote, not to mention other minor details, like the U.S. Senate.

            Hopeful Democrats find comfort in the much touted youth vote, conjured into vitality by Michael Moore and George Soros. The post-election consensus now seems to be that the youth vote spiked upward about 9.3 percent, a considerable number from one election to another. But voter turnout as a whole went up by about that same number, so while the youth did in fact get more involved they did not in fact get more involved than anyone else.

            And while the young were probably more likely to go blue this time, there is a rapidly expanding Republican Youth faction that likely voted in more consistent -- if not larger -- numbers than the Kerry crowd. Forget business-school blue-bloods, and think of those order-by-phone ads you see for Christian rock double albums on cable channels -- all those dead-eyed looking white kids with the slow sway and the vague smiles.

            The crucial, central fact is that in most counties in America, the Democratic Party has ceased to exist as a functioning organization with the ability to get its base to the polls. If they're going to recover, they've got 20 years of rebuilding and organizing ahead of them. The Left could give up on the Green Party and walk into the abandoned ruins of the Democratic Party tomorrow and campaign on basic issues that matter to people. They have to have credible candidates, too. Hilary Clinton in 2008? You've got to be kidding. They'd do better with Barbara Lee or Maxine Waters.

            Whether the vehicle is The Democratic Party or something else, the Left needs to work out a new formula to tackle growing inequality, a gathering assault on social gains and the rush to commodification of health care and Social Security. If there are any bold spirits left in the Democratic Party, then this is their moment, but it will mean a clean break with the evasion and fakery of the 2000 campaign. It will mean deciding whether they are for or against the war in Iraq, for or against the burden and provocation of 700 overseas military bases, for or against the pell-mell self-aggrandizement and often outright crookery (exposed month after month by New York's crusading attorney general, Eliot Spitzer) of corporate and financial America, for or against decent education, health and pensions.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.