Republicans need to show they have answers to the questions confronting the nation
John Boehner leads a party with much to be modest about, writes columnist Ross Douthat. Republicans know what they're against (the health-care bill, tax increases, cap and trade) but have a world of trouble saying what they might actually be for.
When a political party suffers two consecutive thrashings at the polls, its supporters can usually look forward to a long period of exile — a time to lick wounds, settle scores, feud over policy and gradually map out a road back to relevance.
Not so for the Obama-era Republicans. They were thumped in 2006 and left for dead after 2008, but all it took was a 9.6 unemployment rate and an unpopular liberal majority to bring them roaring back. The wilderness era lasted all of 22 months: conservatives had barely started arguing about what went wrong during the Bush era before the American public handed them the House of Representatives again.
To his credit, John Boehner, the presumptive speaker of the House, seems aware of how little the Republicans have done to earn their summons back to power. His rhetoric since last Tuesday's sweep has been self-effacing, and his promises have been limited and largely procedural. Newt Gingrich took power in 1994 claiming a mandate and brandishing a list of legislative priorities, but Boehner has kept his cards closer to the vest.
"It is the president who sets the agenda for our government," he told supporters Tuesday night — not the kind of statement, to put it mildly, that leading Republicans issued in '94.
The modest Boehner leads a party with much to be modest about. Gingrich could brandish an agenda because he had an agenda — a raft of conservative policy proposals, on welfare and crime and taxes, that couldn't get any traction in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Today's Republicans, by contrast, know what they're against (the health care bill, tax increases, cap and trade) but have a world of trouble saying what they might actually be for.
Instead, they tend to fall back on the reassuring story they've been spinning for the last two years, in which they lost to the Democrats only because they failed to hold the line on spending. It's a narrative that flatters conservative self-regard, while absolving Republicans of the obligation to think too deeply about policy. All they need to do is say "no" to bigger government, and the rest will take care of itself.
This strategy has worked for them in opposition, thanks to the Democratic Party's haste and hubris. But it isn't a blueprint for governance, and it ducks the real reasons the Republicans lost their majority. While the Bush administration overspent, it wasn't spending and deficits that turned the country against conservative domestic policy between 2004 and 2008. It was the fact that the Republican majority seemed to have no answers to Middle America's economic struggles, and no appetite for the structural reforms required to keep the United States competitive.
This is even more true today. The United States is facing three overlapping crises — the short-term challenge of a jobless recovery, the long-term crisis of entitlement spending and, in the medium term, an economy that wasn't delivering for the middle class even before the financial crisis struck. The Democratic Party may have the wrong answers to these problems. But the Republican Party as an institution often seems to have no answers whatsoever.
Some individual Republicans make a better showing. Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, has a proposal for payroll-tax relief that might help jump-start economic growth. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, has his famous "road map" to a sustainable entitlement system. Judd Gregg, the outgoing Republican senator from New Hampshire, was collaborating with Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, on tax reform that could attract bipartisan support. And during the health-care and financial-reform debates, the pages of conservative magazines bristled with plausible alternatives to the Democratic bills.
Yet the party hasn't united around any of these ideas. And what consensus does exist is insufficient to the nation's challenges. The country needs fundamental tax reform rather than the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. It needs a health-care overhaul that doesn't merely return the system to the pre-Obamacare status quo. It needs a plan to slow the growth of Social Security and Medicare, not just a discretionary spending freeze.
On many of these fronts, congressional Republicans will protest that there's nothing to be done so long as Barack Obama occupies the White House. Hence Boehner's calculated attempt to lower expectations; hence Mitch McConnell's insistence that the most important thing Republicans can do is work toward the president's defeat in 2012.
But even if they're right, that's all the more reason to spend the next two years getting serious about policy. It will profit neither conservatism nor the country if Republicans take the White House two Novembers hence, and find themselves as unprepared to govern as they are today.
Ross Douthat is a regular columnist for The New York Times.