Today I read a story about a dispute between different exit pollsters over whether or not the Republicans lost the Cuban vote in Florida.

The fact that Republicans are arguing over whether they won or lost the Cuban vote in south Florida, a week after an election in which they got their heads handed to them, tells us all we need to know. The Republicans have far bigger problems than whether they won or lost the Cuban-American vote in Florida. Rather than trying to determine how the Titanic failed to avoid the iceberg, the GOP is arguing over where the deck chairs were placed. Brilliant.

The Titanic metaphor is apt, because the Republican Party, as currently constituted, is a complete shipwreck. It hit the iceberg with the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has been sinking, in terms of the public’s confidence, ever since. The party suffered a triple whammy in 2005, with Katrina, the Terri Schiavo controversy and the ill-fated attempt to privatize Social Security; the 2006 midterm election wave that delivered Congress to the Democrats for the first time in 12 years resulted directly from what occurred in 2005.

Then, after the economic meltdown at the end of the Bush administration, the Republicans got whipped again in the 2008 elections. Their brief revival in 2010, from today’s vantage point, appears to have been more of a last gasp than a recovery. Two years after that fleeting triumph, they lost to a president suffering the highest unemployment rate of any reelected president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, and still, their loss to the Democrats wasn’t even especially close. Additionally, they lost a net of two Senate seats in a year in which they were defending only 10 seats to their opponents’ 23; and if it hadn’t been for the massive gerrymandering in key states in 2011, they may well have lost the House, too. Democratic House candidates, cumulatively, received more votes than Republican House candidates nationwide.

The Republicans are clearly in free fall at this point, and they seem to have no understanding of why this is the case or how to fix it. The party’s establishment wing and its populist wing are at loggerheads, especially now that it has dawned on the rank-and-file that the Wall Street crowd has been using them as pawns for years. But the GOP populists have the wrong formula for reviving the party’s fortunes. The Tea Party element is preaching that the Republicans lost either because they weren’t conservative enough, while many Republicans of all stripes, both populist and establishment, believe they were not clear enough in their messaging. Neither hypothesis is correct. The Republicans have never been more right-wing, not even when they nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, and they conveyed their rabid conservatism loudly and clearly at every turn. Voters in 2012 did not simply reject the Republican sales pitch; they rejected the Republican product.

The Republican asylum burned to the ground on November 6th, and now the inmates and the guards, rather than figuring out how to rebuild the building, are getting ready to fight to the death to determine who will preside over the ashes. Democrats are gleefully heating up the popcorn and getting ready to enjoy the spectacle.

But Democrats had better not get too comfortable. While the Republicans clearly appear to be learning the wrong lessons from this election, there is always the danger that Democrats will do the same. Democrats must understand that victory does not mean, necessarily, that the country has embraced their entire agenda. The fact is that the Republicans lost this election much more than the Democrats won it. The voters compared their two options, found the former unacceptable, and grudgingly took a gamble on the latter. And while it is true that astute Democratic carpet-bombing of Mitt Romney and the GOP team helped the voters make that choice, the Democrats couldn’t have pulled off that political Dresden if the Republicans hadn’t handed them all the ammunition they needed.

If Democrats don’t justify the voters’ choice, and don’t avoid the massive turnout dropoff of two years ago, the nation’s electoral fortunes will swing back to the Republicans in 2014, just as they did in 2010. The Democrats need to put down the popcorn and go back for a second helping of elbow grease.