It turns out that Americans were prepared to vote for pro wrestlers and incompetent incumbents -- we could even tolerate a womanizing president -- but we had no appetite for politicians posing as moralists.
In recent years, Republican politicians and their partisans in the media have been flirting with the so-called religious right. They assumed that the future of their party and their own vain ambitions rested with the likes of Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer and Jerry Falwell. It was a foolish assumption.
Most of the GOP moralists were male, many of them were white, some of them spoke with Southern accents. On Sunday morning talk shows they wanted us to know what they thought about feminism and homosexuality and abortion. They promised salvation, something they described vaguely in pastel colors as an America governed by "traditional family values."
Americans -- to their credit, many Americans -- would have none of it. They recognized the politician and the media huckster for what he was. Voters in Alaska and Hawaii may not have been willing to legalize gay weddings, but a larger number of Americans did not need Trent Lott's preachments on homosexuality -- for example, his recent comparison of gay life to kleptomania.
Neither did Americans need a childless, thrice-married radio commentator named Rush Limbaugh to tell us about family values. We did not need Dick Armey in the House to be our minister, or Pat Buchanan to be our priest. We did not need Bill Bennett, making the rounds of the talk shows, selling his latest moral essay, to describe the dark state of the American soul.
They will not "get it," I predict. Already Rush Limbaugh is blaming the liberal media for the Republican defeat. And some others, like Bennett, are suggesting that Americans are morally bankrupt because we do not listen to his bestselling pieties.
Fact No. 1: Americans do not look to Washington politicians for guidance in our moral life.
Most Americans do not admire Bill Clinton's adolescent sexual behavior, his lies, his treatment of his wife. But, then, most Americans don't much admire the fact that Newt Gingrich abandoned his wife in a cancer ward -- then married another.
Fact No. 2: There are worse sins than lying or adultery or drunkenness in the American scheme of things. Americans are a plain-spoken, tolerant people, in the main. We may not be sophisticated in the ways we understand sex, but neither are we inclined to pry into each other's bedrooms.
But one sin stands above all others in the public life. It is the unforgivable sin, the sin that Americans hate most in politicians and political pundits. That sin is hypocrisy.