Below Dave has collected the links so far which discuss this issue.
I have some new ideas to add, but right now I’d just like to summarize what I think now. First, long-term strategy is the real question, here, not the 2004 election. Not much energy has been put into strategy since the New Dems took over in 1984. The New Dem strategy has been OK but not great, and in any case it’s twenty years old.
Partly because the party is usually financially strapped, the long-term party-building efforts have tended to be cannibalized in favor of each year’s election. (That’s what the “soft money” controversy was all about way back then). We shouldn’t let this continue to happen.
The question of whether to put effort into “growing the base” is independent of the left vs. right / new voter vs. swing voter controversies. Active efforts to get moderate independents to identify as Democrats count as “growing the base” too.
The Democrats have been too passive, lazy, and defeatist about recruiting new voters and non-voters. My hypothesis is that a lot of non-voters are working poor and that they are natural Democrats if the Democrats can convince them that they can deliver medical care, an increase in the minimum wage, lower payroll deductions for social security, etc.
I have never heard anything whatsoever from Democratic wonks and pros about the 50% of Americans who don’t vote except “No one really knows why non-voters don’t vote; they have all kind of different reasons for not voting and don’t form a coherent group of any kind; they’re impossible to organize and probably aren’t Democrats either; and besides, non-voters don’t vote so they’re not going to help us at all”.
Those things may all have some truth in them, but they’re all reasons for quitting. Much as I hate Robertson, Norquist, and Rove, I’ll give them 100 points for enterprise. And I’ll give their nameless Democratic counterparts zero. The bad guys have tried dozens of things, some of which worked. They didn’t just take polls and then say “That’s not going to work” and sit down and chill. (Right now they’re going after the Dem base: at the moment, Jewish voters.)
(Edited: changed 2000 to 2004)