We Republicans just made history. Not the history we wanted, mind you, but history nonetheless. Not only did we lose the White House but, after losing our House and Senate majorities in 2006, we followed it Tuesday with even steeper losses in Congress.
In January, Democrats will enjoy lopsided congressional ratios not seen since the 1970s. Let's face it: We Republicans are now deep in the political wilderness.
The temptation for Republicans in Congress will be to assume the role of the post-Watergate Republicans and accept minority status as permanent. Indeed, the terrain is more difficult for us now than in 1992. Then, Republicanism was still largely defined by the Reagan years. Today the party is defined in the public mind by the Bush presidency. We've got a steep hill to climb.
Much of the backroom maneuvering and media speculation in coming weeks will focus on finding new standard-bearers for the party. This is important, and after a second straight drubbing, the House Republican leadership should be replaced. But the more critical task is determining what standard these new leaders will bear.
I suggest we return to first principles. Atop that list has to be a recommitment to limited government. After eight years of profligate spending and soaring deficits, voters can be forgiven for not knowing that limited government has long been the first article of faith for Republicans.
Of course, it's not the level of spending that gets the most attention; it's how it's allocated. The proliferation of earmarks is largely a product of the Gingrich-DeLay years, and it's no surprise some of the most ardent practitioners were earmarked by the voters for retirement. Few Americans will take seriously Republican speeches on limited government if we Republicans can't wean ourselves from this insidious practice. But if we can go clean, it will offer a stark contrast to the Democrats, who, after two years in training, already have their own earmark favor factory running full tilt.
Second, we need to recommit to our belief in economic freedom. The free market is still the most efficient means to allocate capital and human resources in an economy, and Americans know it. Now that we've inserted government deeply into the private sector by bailing out banks and businesses, the temptation will be for government to force the distribution of resources to serve political ends. Substituting political for economic incentives is not a recipe for recovery.
Most House Republicans opposed the bailout and will be in a position to promote economic freedom over central planning as the Obama administration stumbles from industry to industry trying to determine which is small enough to be allowed to fail and which isn't.
There are other pillars of the Republican standard – strong national defense, support for traditional values and the Second Amendment – but these are not areas where voters question Republican bona fides.
In some respects, Tuesday's rout makes raising a new standard easier. The Republican Party is not bound by its presidential candidate's election-year promises. More important, the party is finally untethered from the unworkable big-government conservatism of the Bush administration.
It won't be an easy transition. Congressional Republicans picked up some bad habits trying to keep power. Whether it was relying on redistricting to help choose our constituents, using appropriations as an ATM or passing legislation – such as a generous prescription drug benefit and a bloated farm bill – to pacify individual constituencies, those voting patterns will be hard to break.
But there is reason for Republican optimism. America remains a center-right country, and it loves a chastened sinner. As surely as the sun rises in the east, the Democrats will overreach.
As long as we Republicans are willing to admit our folly, get back to first principles and work as if there's no tomorrow, we've got 'em just where we want 'em.