It's done! The election is finally over - and much more decisively than some scenarios had predicted. While the political alignment in Congress hasn't changed much, overall it represents a real victory for President Obama and the Democratic Party. So what now?
In policy terms, it means the major accomplishments of the 1st Obama Administration - the Affordable Care Act, Wall-Street reform - remain securely in place. Those hurdles having been passed, the time may have come to tackle tax reform and immigration. Whether Congress (with the House still in Republican hands) can rise to the occasion remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the so-called "Fiscal Cliff" might motivate some important moves. The Bush-era, deficit-increasing tax cuts will expire automatically on January 1, and "sequestration" will radically cut both discretionary domestic and defense spending. Buoyed by re-election, the President might be able to remain firm and face down congressional Republicans on these issues.
In political terms, each party presumably has lessons to learn from the election. Losing is usually a greater incentive to learning than winning. So the immediate focus will probably be on the lessons the Republicans need to take away from their significant defeat. In a time of widespread economic distress, the Republicans nominated someone whose life and career personified the economic class that caused the problem in the first place - and whose proposed solution is to align the system even more narrowly in the interests of that class. That probably wasn't the most fortuitous choice of candidate for this year. Perhaps a more "man of the people" candidate (e.g., Chris Christie?) might have been able to do better. But the Republicans' problem went well beyond their choice of candidate. At heart, one suspects, Romney is really not very ideological, and is more of a pragmatic, problem-solver - who happened to be the candidate of a very ideological party. If the Republican Party were still the party of, say, Romney's father, perhaps he would have felt more free to make a more convincing case to the electorate. To win the nomination, however, he had embraced a whole set of extreme positions - on the auto bailout, on immigration, on healthcare, on taxes, etc. For the Republican Party to become a competitive national party again, it will have to have come up with something serious to offer to the majority of the population that aren't business owners.
Perhaps the most obvious challenge for the Republicans, however, is the population itself. Romney was largely the choice of a shrinking component of the electorate - older and whiter (mainly male) voters. Obama won almost everyone else. If younger voters are settling into the Democratic Party, they are likely to remain Democrats, and it will take a lot for Republicans to dislodge them. And, of course, Obama won some 70% of the Latino vote. Yet, as recently as George W. Bush, who carried 44% of the Latino vote in 2004, it was possible to imagine the Republicans being competitive among Latino voters. The disrespect and hostility towards immigrants that has become Republican orthodoxy has paralyzed the party's ability to reach out to the largest growing ethnic group. The Republicans' problem is clear. The solution somewhat less so.
What about the Church? In the aftermath of the French Revolution, some saw the best path for the Church in an alliance with the Old Regime and remained enthusiastic supporters of Restoration politics in 19th-century Europe. By the latter part of the century, however, that path hadn't succeeded, and an alternative path was obviously required. Pope Leo XIII encouraged French Catholics to make their peace with the French Republic, so that they could focus on other priorities. (The issue was not whether preferring the Old Regime was a good or bad political choice, but whether it was a religiously necessary choice).
As was the case in Europe after the French Revolution, there are real challenges facing the Church in this increasingly secular culture - and serious threats to religious liberty from the secular cultural elite (e.g., the HHS Mandate, which hopefully will be overturned in the courts). As citizens, Catholics, of course, are all over the map in their political preferences - and that is probably all to the good. A problem arises, however, when political preferences are interpreted as religiously necessary preferences. In discerning a path to re-evangelize American society and guarantee religious liberty, it is important not to politicize religion, not to act as if the path is to be found in alliance with a particular political party. Whatever the path to re-evangelizing American society and preserving religious liberty, it is not likely to be by identifying the Church with support for regressive tax policies, opposition to universal health care, or hostility to immigrants (who just happen to be the growing group in the Catholic Church in the US).