Chief Justice William Rehnquist liked to take small groups of Supreme Court law clerks to lunch at the Monocle, an old Capitol Hill watering hole near the Senate. He ordered the same meal every time, a hamburger and a beer. Just as predictably, one of the young clerks would ask the chief justice of the United States for career advice.
"Go home," he would say. It was only the mischievous twinkle in Rehnquist's eye that persuaded the listeners not to immediately clean out their desks right after lunch. As the chief justice would explain, the states, not Washington, presented the best opportunities for a career.
Republicans reeling from the 2008 elections should follow Rehnquist's advice. Republicans are in a deep funk, much like the one that gripped them in the wake of the 1992 elections. But fears that the election results represent a fundamental realignment of American politics may be premature.
Barack Obama did win the presidential election decisively, and Democrats will have at least 58 votes in the Senate and a 254-173 majority in the House. It was historic, and we all celebrate that the United States has elected the first African American to the presidency.
However, Obama is only the second Democratic presidential candidate to win more than 51 percent of the vote since 1944, and the first since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964. He won a stunning Electoral College victory, 363-173, but the college often magnifies the legitimacy of the winner beyond his share of the popular vote.
Realignments take more than a victory at the polls; they occur only after a critical election that represents a sea change in the nation's politics. Only two occurred in the 20th century, the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
FDR's victory signaled a rejection of the laissez-faire philosophy of the Republican Party that had dominated politics since the Civil War, and introduced the liberal New Deal state. The Reagan vote signaled a skepticism of activist government, the rise of free-market economics, and a focus on tax cuts. The only other realignments that scholars can agree upon occurred in 1800, 1828 and 1860.
Despite comparisons of our economic crisis with the Depression, it would be a mistake for Obama to think of himself with a mandate like FDR's. We still live in the era of Reagan - Obama himself campaigned on a platform of tax cuts and deficit reduction.
Any regulation of the financial markets will be driven by a panicked response to the collapse of the credit markets, not a new philosophical dedication to an activist state. Obama may propose new spending on infrastructure, but only to stimulate the economy out of a recession, not because the American people have a newfound love of bigger federal government.
To take just one sign that the election has not ushered in a new political consensus, California voted for Obama by an amazing 61-37 percent. But the bluest of blue states also prohibited same-sex marriage by five points, enacted a crime-victims'-rights initiative by seven points, and defeated a proposal to limit minors' free access to abortions by only four points. Obama opposed gay marriage during the campaign and called for the Supreme Court to overrule its decision banning the death penalty for child rapists.
Obama shouldn't misinterpret his electoral victory as a sweeping mandate - perhaps President Bush's overarching political mistake - or the introduction of a new political order. The president-elect would be better-served by moving swiftly to cure the recession and then focusing on moderate, bipartisan policies in areas such as education, spending and entitlement reform. He might even pick a fight or two with a Congress that moves too far, too fast to nationalize health care or interfere with the free market. Last week's picks of Hillary Rodham Clinton for secretary of state and Marine Gen. James Jones as national security adviser, along with his decision to keep Robert Gates as defense secretary, signal that Obama may understand the virtues of pragmatism.
Meanwhile, Republicans must rebuild their brand by focusing on the states, where the nation's problems in education, crime and economic growth can best be solved.
Federalism allows states to offer a different mixture of taxes and policies; citizens can vote with their feet. If you prefer high taxes and strong environmental protections, you can move to California; if you like more free markets and lower taxes, you can move to the South.
Republicans can replenish their arsenal of ideas by experimenting with change in the states and transforming the successes into their next national platform. The states, not Congress or inside the Beltway, will prove to be the farm team for the next generation of leaders.