Then the helicopters lifted off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, Gerry Ford, reputed to be president at the time, went on national television to reassure the public, insisting that this was no time for "recriminations." To which a friend of mine replied: "This is exactly the time for recriminations!" The deep significance of the Republican victory on Tuesday has barely been appreciated in the land: This was the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower's first landslide, which was the last time that the Republicans had control of the White House, the Senate, and the House at the same time. I was twelve years old. It was not until Ronald Reagan's first election that the Republicans won the Senate again. But now, on the morning after this breakthrough, long awaited, Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, appeared at the National Press Club with his opposite number, Terry McAuliffe. As Racicot sought to end his remarks on a lofty note, he suggested that the Republicans would not let their victory inflate their view of themselves. They would seek to govern, he said, in a spirit of "bipartisanship."
For the Democrats, this is exactly the time for recriminations, but for the Republicans this is no time for bipartisanship. It is evident from the sharp division in the country, from the close votes and the heat of the campaign, that for many people it matters profoundly which party has control of the Senate. I know several Democrats in New York, in the last election, who recoiled from Hillary Clinton, but bit their lips and voted for her entirely for the sake of keeping control of the Senate. For these voters, the concern seemed to be with the control of appointments to the court -- which has become a code expression, of course, for protecting Roe v. Wade. And for the Republicans, the passion to retake the Senate has been no less intense, going well beyond the concern for the Republican agenda -- on taxes, security, regulation, and yes, abortion and appointments to the courts. But there was also the passion for dealing with Tom Daschle, the facade of boyish innocence covering a malevolence unrelenting, a willingness to undercut even the clearest measures of the public good -- homeland security, prescription drugs, drilling for oil in Alaska -- if they did not exactly suit the interests of his own party. And second on the list, in any ranking, was Pat Leahy: the arrogant indifference even to minimal standards of comity, in running the Judiciary Committee, and blocking even the most-distinguished candidates from the bench -- among them Michael McConnell and John Roberts.
The passion of the Republicans, fed by many sources, had to it all of the moral strands that make up the logic of political parties. It has been common to dismiss the American parties as mere collections of interest groups. But for those coalitions to stay together in a durable way, there needs to be some sense of how they can be reconciled with one another in a manner that lasts beyond the day. Just how the National Rifle Association manages to combine with the pro-lifers and small businessmen depends on the way that political men and women have managed to explain those connections to their own supporters -- and to the groups themselves. And as they have, they have woven together a certain "principled" cluster of interests that gives, to each of the political parties, a rather distinct character. We are constantly told that our parties are not "ideological," and yet people in the country seem to have the most vivid sense of the differences between these two parties. Why else should the Republicans inspire such revulsion in Hollywood, moving the lovely, if dimwitted, Julia Roberts to remark that "Republican," in the dictionary, comes just after "reptilian"?
But beyond the caricatures, those "principled" ensembles of interest come to shape an outlook on politics that is "principled" in the same measure. Clearly, the public have come to think that those parties mean something, and what that "something" happens to be is a certain principled perspective on the rightful ordering of public policy -- an understanding of the rightful ends of government, and a sense then of the legitimate reach, and limits, of the powers of the state. To put it another way, the parties carry within them a certain perspective on the character of the regime itself. But that is exactly the way that parties began in this country, and that meaning has been preserved, built into the very logic of political parties. As Charles Kesler reminds us, "partisanship" meant in the first place partisanship for the Constitution, or one's reading of the Constitution. And when we are divided, say, on the question of whether the Constitution contains a "right" to abortion or to same-sex marriage, is there any doubt that this is precisely the kind of difference that stands at the heart of the division now between the parties, or between the red counties and the blue?
Why, then, on the morning after the election, would spokesmen for the Republican party proclaim that these kinds of understandings, woven among their own supporters, should not be honored? Why is the first step to say that we will turn aside, as indecorous or out of season, the moral passions that fueled the Republican voters? Marc Racicot is the most thoughtful of men, and a seasoned political hand. No one thinks for a moment that he will not get to work at once to press the president's agenda. What he says about bipartisanship could be chalked up to a public piety -- perhaps a ritual of civility, or one of those prudent, lingering sops to the soccer moms, the women who seem to regard argument, in politics, as a food-fight among boys. But there is a certain point at which these rituals of piety, these self-effacing gestures, become corrosive. If there has been any chronic malady among the Republicans it has been a want of confidence in making the arguments for their own positions in public. That diffidence has always carried the implication that the Democrats hold the moral high ground, that there is something a bit eccentric or sectarian about the views of the Republicans, that their notions of the world are at odds with the orthodoxies established in the public discourse by those advanced minds who rule in the academy and the media. In short, the Republicans had about them an air of defensiveness and moral doubt. As one wag famously put it, in an inversion of Barry Goldwater's line, "In their hearts, they know they are wrong."
But isn't it time finally to break the foolish conceit that the New York Times and the universities are peopled with the leading minds of our age? The campuses have made a revealing spectacle of themselves since September 11; in their opposition to a serious military response, they join the Europeans in their bent toward appeasement, with an edge of anti-Semitism. At Amherst College, on September 11, the deep-dish thinkers, at an all-college assembly, explained why this assault we suffered had been our own fault after all. But in this respect, the colleges reflect the state of mind that took hold in the late '60s and early '70s, and the graduates of those years have now settled in, with commanding positions in the media. Their suspicion of American power has now deepened into doubts about the American regime itself, taught again by the academy, with the new cachet for Nietzsche and Heidegger. As the late Allan Bloom remarked, "These people talk about nihilism as though it were a jacuzzi." Like the enemies of Lincoln, they too now believe that the "self-evident" truth of the Declaration of Independence was a "self-evident lie." They have been cultivated to think that the educated no longer take seriously the notion that there are moral truths underlying the right of a people to be governed with their own consent -- or anything else. They would rather live here than elsewhere, but they can no longer give a moral defense of the American regime, or of the rights it was meant to secure.
Nancy Pelosi, about to ascend to the leadership of the Democrats in the House, reflects precisely that drift into soft relativism. The president set forth, in Cincinnati, a precise indictment of Saddam Hussein and his regime. If Hussein really had acquired weapons of mass destruction, could anyone believe that he and his regime would suffer any moral inhibitions or legal restraints on the use of those weapons? Without dealing in the least with the president's evidence or his argument, Pelosi insisted that we should go to war only if we had the approval of the United Nations. Apparently, Americans themselves cannot be trusted to deliberate about the dangers before them and the conditions of their own well-being, or trust those decisions to their own elected representatives. Somehow those judgments of ours cannot be trusted unless they are confirmed by the opinions of others. That those others bear no responsibility for the safety of the American people, that they are in many cases representatives of the world's leading despots, may be put to the side. Nancy Pelosi has apparently absorbed the notion that there are no objective truths on matters of moral judgment. Everything depends then on "opinion," and we can be surer about our own judgments when they coincide with the opinions held by others.
A leadership with this species of moral witlessness must be the mark of a party that no longer has a sense of moral up or down. The Democrats are floating without a compass, and if the president had the inclination, he could finish them off. FDR, in his second campaign, waged a war against the "economic royalists." He was not beyond the willingness to secure his ends by discrediting his opposition and destroying them as a political force. President Bush could do something comparable without even being mean. He could merely confront them in their own moral arguments, from defending America, to cloning, to protecting the lives of children who survive abortion. They have already manifested an astonishing fear of defending their own positions here when challenged. Why should the Republicans take it as their mission to spare the Democrats from the need to own up in public as to who they are -- and to face the divisions among themselves that are bound to tear them apart?
It is never out of season for Republicans to remember Edmund Burke's case for political parties. Parties represented, he said, "hard essays of practiced friendship and experimented fidelity." They were virtually schools, giving practice every day in the art of bearing obligations. As he remarked on the Whigs of an earlier day, they believed that "friendship was no mean step towards patriotism; that he who, in the common intercourse of life, showed he regarded somebody besides himself, when he came to act in a public situation, might probably consult some other interest than his own." This is no time for the Republican leadership to suggest that we will think better of them, not as they honor their own principles, but as they appease their worst enemies. As Lincoln said, it was as though one had to apologize for having been elected. We will know that the Republicans finally take themselves and their mission seriously when they no longer feel the need to flatter their enemies. No more talk, then, of bipartisanship; let us get on with the work we have waited 50 years to do.