In the signature promise of his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush pledged to usher in a Responsibility Era. Once he got the job, the president forgot all about that promise, but on Tuesday, the American people are going to keep it for him.

After record budget deficits, repeated political scandals, rampant bureaucratic incompetence, and the president’s stubborn refusal to admit mistakes, hold anyone accountable, or level with the American people, we thought the Responsibility Era couldn’t begin until Bush left office. But Americans aren’t willing to wait that long. For most voters, the 2006 election is about holding the Bush administration and the Republican Congress accountable for failing to provide the new direction the country so desperately needs.

The new direction Democrats offer this year includes many new ideas, but the most important is to bring back an old one: responsibility. More than any other value, responsibility has the power to solve seemingly intractable problems. We saw that during the Clinton years, when reforming the welfare system and balancing the budget showed that a new direction made progress possible in areas where failure had once seemed inevitable.

Over the past six years, we’ve seen how much weaker our nation is in an era without responsibility. No one will ever forget the shocking image of thousands of poor people in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, trapped by neglect even more than by the weather. Corporate shams at Enron and elsewhere rattled faith in free enterprise. If Americans had any faith left in politics, the parade of scandals led by Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Mark Foley shook that, too.

Responsibility begins at the top. That means living up to the highest standards of public service. It means putting the nation’s books in balance, not running the country into debt. Above all, it means doing right by the future by making honest, good-faith efforts to solve the country’s problems, at home and abroad.

Citizenship is not an entitlement program. It’s not about giving people a program for every problem; it’s about establishing the tools and conditions that will enable them to make the most of their own lives.

Our best leaders have always understood this. The Founders set out “to form a more perfect Union.” Abraham Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” F.D.R. rose from his wheelchair to show Americans how to look past their own pain, and to see how the fight would make us stronger in the end.

Americans understand it, too, and are bitterly disappointed that their president does not. Bush should have fired Donald Rumsfeld long ago. All four leading military newspapers just demanded the defense secretary’s resignation. But only last week, the president pledged to give Rumsfeld two more years to keep failing.

If the president won’t hold his own administration accountable for letting America down, the American people will have to do it for him. That’s a message they’ll send loud and clear on Election Day.

In a real Responsibility Era, we’ll set a new direction for America and hold Washington accountable for results. For the last six years, there has been a fundamental disconnect between the people and their government. At every turn, George Bush tried to make reality fit his ideology. To no avail: From Iraq to Katrina to the deficit, he saw his ideology mugged by reality.

A dose of reality and responsibility is exactly the medicine our ailing political system needs. The more we focus on the hard realities of the war on terror, the more we will do to build a world that looks up to America with respect and wants to emulate our way of life, not destroy it. The more seriously we take the real threats to our culture, the harder we will work to raise our children right, and the prouder we will be of what they become.

And the sooner we restore accountability to our political system, the sooner the American people will get the new direction they deserve and our country needs. At every turn, President Bush and the Republicans have failed to deliver the Responsibility Era they promised. If the voters have their way, the new era of responsibility will start at last on Tuesday.