Tomorrow night, if things go the way conservatives hope and forecasters predict, Republicans will retake the Senate. Already the process stories have started, claiming that this is essentially “the Seinfeld Election,” an election about nothing. Supposedly, Republicans are winning simply by being against Barack Obama’s bad policies, instead of actually being for good policies.
With constructive optimists like Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner running in my neighboring states of Iowa and Colorado, I completely disagree, but it’s important for Republicans to understand where the narrative is going next. Starting Wednesday, the cry from Democrats and the media will be that Republicans do not have a real governing agenda, that all we care about is shutting down the government, and that the supposed “GOP civil war” is back and worse than ever. Even though there will often be little data to support this handwringing analysis, the media will frame the new majority as a dysfunctional caucus with two warring factions: “Team Small Ball” vs. “Team Shutdown.”
I categorically reject these categories. But there is only one way for Republicans to combat this obsession with intra-Republican debate: Go big.
The media’s portrait of an agenda-less GOP rings true to many because it was true for too long: In each election, Americans had to choose between Democrats with Big Government bad ideas, and Republicans with seemingly no ideas at all and no passion for tackling the nation’s biggest problems. Heading into 2016, we cannot beat something with nothing. We have to get good at explaining what we are for.
If there is one lesson of this election, it’s that the American people are desperate for real leadership. For six years, we have watched our federal government try to do more things than ever before, inserting itself into every sector of life but not really doing anything very well.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence did not pledge their fortunes and sacred honor so the federal government could play “helicopter parent” to a free people. They saw government as our shared project to secure liberty, doing a few big things and doing them well. We need to get back to that.
The first step is explaining to Americans that we must get our house in order. That we must take a hard look at what our government is doing in D.C. and ask tough questions. We have to state more clearly that fixing the broken parts of government is not the same as opposing government in and of itself.
If elected, I want to take part in a vigorous reaffirmation of the basic American ideal of a limited government with enumerated powers. But inside that limited set of governmental duties, we should actually get the big things done. We must energetically tackle the significant problems the voters rightly want Washington to be addressing.
To do that, we need a bold agenda that is easy to understand and tackles head-on the crises we face. Republicans must sell a big-cause, problem-solving vision — low-ego and happy-warrior in tone.
In policy arena after policy arena, Democrats respond to every failure of clunky government by proposing the addition of still more layers to 1960s-era bureaucracies as they break down. Republicans should invite them instead into a conversation about actually modernizing government, by fundamentally overhauling outdated federal programs to become nimble enough for the age of Uber and of lifelong job retraining.
I recognize that President Obama is likely to veto much of what we propose. Let him. If we aren’t at least laying out a vision of what we’re for, then many voters in the 2016 presidential election are going to remain skeptical that Republicans are serious about actually tackling the biggest national policy problems before us. Here are nine bold ideas we need to get behind:
1. Entitlement reform that ties the retirement age to our growing life expectancy, and that means-tests our insolvent safety-net programs instead of letting them mushroom further.
2. Health reform that affirms a societal (not governmental) goal of universal catastrophic health insurance by addressing the government roadblocks that make it difficult for families to choose from a broad, private-sector menu of health-insurance policies that they can keep even when changing jobs or states.
3. Welfare reform that eliminates the marriage penalty and “dependency lock,” tackling today’s overlapping programs that absurdly disincentivize both healthy family structures and the move from welfare to work, which should be the fundamental goal of these programs.
4. Education reform that champions more choices for parents and for those needing job retraining, making clear that our policies put students rather than incumbent institutions first.
5. Tax reform that spends far less rhetorical energy on the marginal tax rate of the top 1 percent and instead begins with a goal of maximum economic growth and more opportunities for the poor and the middle class.
6. Regulatory reform that doesn’t scare the American people into thinking we might not be interested in protecting them from genuinely predatory actors, but that attempts to devolve all possible regulation to the state and local level, and that causes all major federal rules to sunset after a short period unless Congress votes to keep them.
7. Immigration reform that prioritizes securing the border but also outlines the broader changes we plan to implement once the border is secured.
8. Electoral reform that includes term limits and makes it more difficult for incumbent politicians to fundraise when they should be doing the people’s work.
9. Science- and research-funding reform that reengages the imagination of the most innovative people in the history of the world by defining concrete — but lofty — goals like the cure for cancer.
Over the next two years, it’s not enough to simply be against President Obama. We have to explain that we are actually for people.
It’s time to rally around a vision of America that creates more opportunity for all, not through government mandates, but through rediscovering an optimism about the American identity. That’s what made our country great at the Founding. Let’s do it again.
— Ben Sasse, president of Midland University, is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska.