What to do, oh, what to do? Jump off a tall building, or just wait for the Democrats to begin exhibiting the consequences of hubris and distraction? I propose to Republicans the latter course -- easier on the dry-cleaning. Besides, as the Republicans' own experience should have taught them, even the biggest victories have a surprisingly short shelf life.
The Democrats will spend the next year -- until the presidential season kicks in -- preening and defining themselves, and probably to the general good. A party guided from the left by Nancy Pelosi and from the right by Reaganite Senator-elect Jim Webb of Virginia is ripe for some definition. But so, too, are the Republicans -- the subjects of today's sermon.
Americans didn't so much (it seems to me) turn their backs on the Republicans as invite the Grand Old Party to a reconsideration of its present principles. Which are? Allow me a moment of reflection as to the domestic side of things, leaving aside the more tangled problem of how to defeat terrorists.
A party develops its principles in response to challenge. The Goldwaterites -- with whom both Hillary Clinton and I were oddly linked in '64 -- were reacting to New Deal-Fair Deal regulation and the threat of communism. What had to be done was clear enough: The state had to be limited or its energies balked, and communism had to be defeated. The Reagan administration finally brought about both results, more or less. What next?
We found we had an extensive, expensive government without enough to do. Moreover, the state continued to throw its weight around, imposing the libertarian notions of the '60s: hands off my body (abortion), less God in public places (no school prayer, no manger scenes, etc.). Foes of the so-called religious right seem to think the religious right up and decided one day to make the whole country fundamentalist, when, in fact, the religious right seeks merely to restore the moral-cultural balance, c. 1960. Of course, by now everyone is into self-expression and wants to stay there, making respect for human life and opposition to abortion look puritanical. Hands off my body, Sen. Santorum!
Just humming along seems the natural condition of American politics, except when grave challenges arise, like the Depression or the Soviet threat. To this condition we may be returning in 2006. Whatever self-definition the Republicans come up with is likely to reflect voter ambiguity about what a government should do for its people. That is, until the terrorists strike again, at which point all bets are off.
How about, instead of using it, handing it back? How about restoring power and responsibility and choice and autonomy to those sectors where federal "benevolence" has crowded them out? How about, for starters, a laudable project on which Republicans earlier gave up -- their president's proposal to let Americans choose what they want done with their Social Security contributions? Too soon, this, for a stunned and bleeding party?