William F. B. O'Reilly Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28,

William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.

Chris Matthews, who said something really dumb on MSNBC this week about Hurricane Sandy, said something brilliant in a 1998 PBS documentary about President Reagan.

"Reagan knew one person," the former aide to Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill observed. "I don't know who this person is, and maybe I've never met him, but this person is the American public."

Many can't help but wonder after Tuesday's election if that person Reagan knew so well is still out there.

Indeed, Ronald Reagan's America never seemed more distant than it did Tuesday night. It felt like a different America -- a different American -- that cast those ballots to keep the country moving leftward.

Tuesday was supposed to be a Republican night. All the elements were there: The election was about the economy and free-market employment growth during one of the worst job markets in decades. The challenger was a successful turnaround expert when a national turnaround is needed. "Big Mo," as Richard Nixon nicknamed the phenomenon of political momentum, was on the GOP's side.

So was Nixon's "silent majority." It was out in full force. But in this supposedly new America, that silent majority is a minority of the electorate, we're told. That's what some conservative commentators meant post-election when they muttered inanities like "the country is lost."

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Some argue that Reagan's America never truly existed -- that it was an Ozzie and Harriet meme carried over from Dutch's Hollywood days -- but those of us who came of age during the 1970s and '80s, the ones whose vision of America was forged by Reagan's optimism, will tell you differently. And we will swear to it.

Reagan's America was uncategorically exceptional. It was rooted, without apology, in capitalism and individualism. Reagan's America was sure-footed and forward looking.

It was the world's moral compass; the last best hope of mankind.

More than anything else, it was an attitude we held about ourselves for a time.

Reagan said things like, "Here's my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose."

You don't hear much of that kind of talk today.

Today's America is nuanced and self-doubting. It is unsure of its future, but also of its past. It suddenly compares itself with Europe, a continent many of our families fled in search of economic and religious freedom. It fears China, a single-party dictatorship that cannot stand the test of time.

With the break of day Wednesday came predictable recriminations of the Republican Party. It is too male, too white, too conservative. It has somehow broken faith with female voters. It needs to reach out more to Hispanics.

In other words, the Republican Party must change its message to accommodate this new America, as though the country is now a hodgepodge of demographics that will no longer melt in a single pot.

There's a great anecdote about the British conservative statesman and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli recounted in "The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes."

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A young woman was taken to dinner by Disraeli's liberal rival, the famously eloquent William Gladstone who would himself serve four terms as prime minister. The following evening she dined with Disraeli.

"When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone I thought he was the cleverest man in England," she recounted. "But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England."

That's what Reagan did for us after the disquieting 1960s and 70s. He made us believe in ourselves again as a people. Not everyone agreed with all of his stances -- many vigorously opposed them -- but my, how we liked our chances in the world while he stood at the helm.

The Republican Party need not acquaint itself with a new American. It must find a way to remind the American Ronald Reagan spoke to of who we have always been. When the party can do that, it will win elections again.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.