In March 1975, with the United States in post-Watergate disarray at home, stunned by repeated diplomatic defeats at the United Nations, and about to suffer the humiliation of seeing an ally at whose side we had fought for many years be overrun by the North Vietnamese Communist Army, Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked: “What then does the United States do?”

His answer, in an article in Commentary magazine:

The United States goes into opposition. This is our circumstance. We are a minority. We are outvoted. This is neither an unprecedented nor an intolerable situation. The question is what do we make of it. So far we have made little—nothing—of what is in fact an opportunity. We go about dazed that the world has changed. We toy with the idea of stopping it and getting off. We rebound with the thought that if only we are more reasonable perhaps “they” will be. .  .  . But “they” do not grow reasonable. Instead, we grow unreasonable. A sterile enterprise which awaits total redefinition.

How to achieve a “total redefinition” through opposition? First, “recognize that there is a distinctive ideology” at work on the other side. Such a recognition allows one to “be in a position to reach for a certain coherence of opposition.” And that coherence of opposition would revolve, Moynihan suggested, around making the case for America as a nation worth defending: “It is past time we ceased to apologize for an imperfect democracy. Find its equal.”

In particular, unapologetic opposition means openly and aggressively making the case for free markets as unequaled engines of economic opportunity and growth; it means advocating government policies that are “limited in their undertakings, concrete in their means, representative in their mode of adoption, and definable in terms of results”; and it means showing a commitment to “speaking for political and civil liberty, and doing so in detail and in concrete particulars.” Making these arguments would be “liberating” for American diplomats and for American foreign policy, Moynihan claimed. “It is time, that is, that the American spokesman came to be feared in international forums for the truths he might tell.”

Today it is the Republican party that is in opposition. Not entirely, of course. There are 30 Republican governors, many of them governing successfully. And Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives. On the other hand, a Democratic president has just been reelected with a majority of the popular vote for the first time in almost 70 years. Republicans lost 25 of 33 Senate races. And Democrats received more popular votes in House contests nationwide than did Republicans. So opposition it is.

But opposition, as Moynihan pointed out, can be liberating. It allows for the spirited defense of principle, as Moynihan would show when he became ambassador to the United Nations a few months after the Commentary article. And it allows for a major rethinking of policy, as Ronald Reagan would demonstrate the following year in his first presidential bid.

Opposition can also be spine-stiffening. Republican self-criticism is necessary and healthy—but all things in moderation. Republicans can and should say, with considerable justification and only a bit of bravado: It is past time we ceased to apologize for an imperfect political party. Find its equal. Probably more than any other party in the world, the Republicans have in recent decades stood unflinchingly for the cause of liberty abroad, and, at home, with a bit more uncertainty, for limited, constitutional government and for the principle that government exists to serve free men and free markets, not the reverse.

Surely, then, it is time for Republican spokesmen to come to be feared in our national forums for the truths they might tell. Truths about the consequences of our weakness abroad and of our debt at home. Truths about the scope of reform necessary to improve health care. Truths not just about liberalism but about crony capitalism, not just about big government but about big business and big education.

Things never turn around immediately. Despite Moynihan’s heroic efforts, the United Nations remained a place of infamy. Gerald Ford defeated Reagan and was in turn defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. The late ’70s were a grim time.

But six years after Moynihan’s article, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. And here too is a lesson. Republicans need to show the spirit of Moynihan. But they also need to aim for the greater achievement of Reagan. Moynihan’s eloquence at the U.N. wasn’t enough to stem and reverse the international tide. His victory over Bella Abzug in the 1976 New York Senate Democratic primary didn’t reshape that party at the national level.

Reagan dared to challenge an incumbent president of his own party. He dared to challenge the establishments of both parties. He thought big, acted boldly, and ultimately won.

So, as Republicans consider their situation halfway through the Obama presidency, they might want to turn for inspiration to Reagan’s impromptu remarks when President Ford invited his defeated rival to say a few words at the close of the 1976 Republican convention:

If I could just take a moment; I had an assignment the other day. Someone asked me to write a letter for a time capsule that is going to be opened in Los Angeles a hundred years from now, on our Tricentennial.

It sounded like an easy assignment. They suggested I write something about the problems and the issues today. I set out to do so, riding down the coast in an automobile, looking at the blue Pacific out on one side and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to be that beautiful a hundred years from now as it was on that summer day.

Then as I tried to write—let your own minds turn to that task. You are going to write for people a hundred years from now, who know all about us. We know nothing about them. We don’t know what kind of a world they will be living in. .  .  .

And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know .  .  . whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.

Will they look back with appreciation and say, “Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now a hundred years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction”?

And if we failed, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom, and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.

This is our challenge; and this is why here in this hall tonight, better than we have ever done before, we have got to quit talking to each other and about each other and go out and communicate to the world that we may be fewer in numbers than we have ever been, but we carry the message they are waiting for.

We must go forth from here united, determined that what a great general said a few years ago is true: There is no substitute for victory, Mr. President.

Republicans are in opposition. This provides opportunities for clear speech and bold proposals. It implies also the responsibility to do what they can to mitigate the damage of the next four years. But, at the end of the day, there is no substitute for victory.

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