Around 9:00 last night, the TV pundits realized that it would no longer do to say that it was an anti-incumbent year: The vast majority of the incumbents losing — all of them in the Senate — were Democrats. Nor could the election be chalked up to red-state reaction. Republicans took Senate seats in Iowa and Colorado, which voted for Obama twice apiece, and governorships in Maryland and Illinois, which last voted Republican in 1988.
The wave gave Republicans a larger Senate majority than all but the most confident among them had expected, and added to the ranks of their governorships when they were expected to decline. That Senate majority should be expanded further if Republicans do not get complacent about the Louisiana run-off in December.
Already a conventional wisdom about what Republicans should do next has congealed. Supposedly it is up to Republicans to “prove they can govern” even though they do not have the White House. Senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) told NPR listeners that Republicans could do this by moving on trade-promotion authority, the immigration bill the Senate passed in 2013, and corporate tax reform.
With all due respect to the senator and like-minded Republicans, this course of action makes no sense as a political strategy. First: While trade-promotion authority and a tax reform that includes (but is not limited to) corporations are good ideas, voters are not, in fact, waiting anxiously for any of this. Business lobbies are. The Republican party should not pursue an agenda that is identical to theirs.
Second: The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic party and the media. It empowers Senator Harry Reid, whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election. If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can — and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.
Third: A prove-you-can-govern strategy will inevitably divide the party on the same tea-party-vs.-establishment lines that Republicans have just succeeded in overcoming. The media will in particular take any refusal to pass a foolish immigration bill that immediately legalizes millions of illegal immigrants as a failure to “govern.”
Fourth: Even if Republicans passed this foolish test, it would do little for them. If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?
Which brings us to the alternative course: building the case for Republican governance after 2016. That means being a responsible party, to be sure, just as the conventional wisdom has it. But part of that responsibility involves explaining what Republicans stand for — what, that is, they would do if they had the White House. And outlining a governing agenda for the future is a different matter from trying to govern in 2015. (For one thing, it is not doomed to failure.)
In particular, that should mean laying out alternatives to Obamacare. It remains unpopular, and no issue was the subject of more Republican ads. If more Republicans endorse an alternative like the one that Senators Hatch, Coburn, and Burr introduced, the party will simultaneously reassure conservatives that it has a plan for replacing Obamacare and the public at large that life after Obamacare won’t involve taking health insurance away from millions of people. Tactics can then be devised and deployed with that goal — replacing Obamacare with a functioning market — in mind.
Republicans should also advance conservative ideas on taxes, jobs, energy, higher-education subsidies, and much else. For the most part that won’t involve either battle royale or deal-cutting with Obama; it will involve putting up legislation that Senate Democrats filibuster. And that’s all right: Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016, but many Senate Democrats will.
So will Senate Republicans in many blue states. It would be better for them to be able to point to an attractive Republican agenda on bread-and-butter issues than to be able to say that they had passed trade-promotion authority.
To some extent, of course, they will be able to do both. They should move on trade-promotion authority, and more generally make progress where it is possible. But not much progress is possible until we have a better president. Getting one ought to be conservatism’s main political goal over the next two years.