Republicans and conservatives have done a good job, in recent months, of keeping expectations under control for the next two years. The cautionary lessons of 1995 are everpresent in Republican minds. They know, and they say, that after the GOP takes over the House on November 2 (as is very likely), and even if Republicans also win the Senate (which is possible), President Obama will still be president. A congressional majority will mostly be limited to playing defense, to checking any further ill-considered legislative efforts to expand the size and scope of government, as well as presenting to the American people a strong and coherent alternative to the big government liberalism of the Democrats.
These are no small things. But it’s not a Republican Revolution. And, seeking to avoid the rhetorical and political overreach of 1995, Republicans will continue to go out of their way to explain that the results of the 2010 elections can be expected to affect ongoing public policy only at the margins. For that reason, they’ll argue that the next presidential election is decisively important, and that much of the effort in the next Congress must be viewed as laying the groundwork for victory in November 2012.
This is a fair and important point, and a point Republicans and conservatives need to keep making. And yet this modest and cautionary account of things may understate what Republicans can accomplish in 2011 and 2012. For Republicans need also to recognize that they can improve the lives of their fellow citizens here and now, even while Barack Obama is president—though not as much, of course, as when he no longer occupies the Oval Office.
For one thing, GOP governors will continue along the paths marked out by Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Haley Barbour in Mississippi, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Bob McDonnell in Virginia, and Chris Christie in New Jersey, among others. With additions to their ranks, and with help from Republicans in Congress who can make some policy experiments at the state level easier to achieve, Republican governors will have many more chances to show that conservative principles are practical, effective, and can command public support not just as campaign promises but as part of a governing agenda. Meanwhile, a clear contrast between failed welfare state gigantism at the national level, and successful reform conservatism at the state level, would be of inestimable value to the GOP presidential nominee in 2012, whether or not he is (or was) a governor himself.
Republican legislators at the national level can make a real difference, too. Extending the current tax rates—something to which the president would, we think, have to accede—would help the economy right now. Definitively taking cap and trade and card check off the legislative table would also help the economy. And while real cuts in domestic discretionary spending won’t be enough to deal with the debt problem, they can at least put us on the beginning of the right budgetary course. Strong criticism of the Fed’s version of crude Keynesianism might also suggest to markets that we’re not in for an endless regime of “quantitative easing” that leads to currency devaluation and stagflation. Some of the many regulatory burdens the Obama administration has imposed on the economy could be stopped or rolled back. All of this would reassure markets in the short and long term.
In foreign policy, Republicans will have a real achievement if they do everything possible to see to it that the Obama administration doesn’t turn tail in Afghanistan, doesn’t fritter away the accomplishments in Iraq, doesn’t permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and doesn’t undermine our defense capabilities. Strong support for the administration’s national security policies where appropriate, and constructive criticism of them where deserved, not with a view to scoring points but with a view to influencing actual American foreign policy, would be a genuine contribution to national well-being.
Yes, there are superficial ways in which improving ongoing domestic and foreign policy might be in tension with maximizing GOP chances in 2012. Successful GOP efforts along those lines would make the Obama administration a less dramatic failure. But that is a price well worth paying to help the country. And serving as a loyal, strong, principled, and effective opposition—an opposition that in some instances is effective in influencing real world policies and outcomes for the better, and in other instances articulates a clear alternative to the White House—is ultimately the path to success in 2012—and beyond.