In their obsession with stressing the economy and jobs in the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney and Republicans ignored or downplayed an array of compelling issues. This was a foolish mistake. They failed to exploit unpopular policies of President Obama’s first term and left unanswered charges that proved harmful to Romney and other Republican candidates. Now they can make up for their blunder, partially anyway. They need an Operation Push Back.

The starting point is Obamacare. It turns out there weren’t only two bites to that apple: the Supreme Court and the chance for a Republican Senate and White House. Those potential threats to the health care law fizzled. But now there’s a possible third bite, or maybe a half-bite. It belongs to state governors, 30 of whom are Republicans.

Governors can’t repeal Obamacare. But they can confound the Obama administration’s plan for implementing it fully in 2014. If governors do so, they may force the president to negotiate on scaling back the program. That’s the best-case scenario. Short of that, they could make a powerful political point, capitalizing on the public’s abiding dislike of Obamacare. That might at least keep the issue alive—for future action.

For the moment, Obamacare is a cross the president continues to bear. Indeed, the election exit poll found that 49 percent of voters favor repealing all or some of it, while only 44 percent would expand it or keep it intact. Governors have unusual leverage here because the health care law incentivizes them to set up exchanges at which millions would purchase insurance. If governors balk, the federal government must create its own exchanges. But federal exchanges would be different. The law says subsidies for those who can’t afford health insurance are available only through state exchanges.

The IRS, no doubt following orders from administration higher-ups, has ruled the federal exchanges could also deliver subsidies. But this has been challenged in federal court, and the IRS stands a good chance of losing. After all, there was a clear reason to channel the subsidies via governors. It was to encourage states to establish exchanges.

Since many governors have delayed a decision, the administration has extended the deadline for compliance. Some, like Nikki Haley of South Carolina, have decided against setting up a state exchange. And Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin announced last week he won’t. “Operating a state exchange would not provide the flexibility to meet our state’s unique needs or to protect our state’s taxpayers,” he said in a letter to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid also gives governors an opportunity to put pressure on the administration. They can refuse to accept funds to increase the Medicaid rolls. Conservative governors may “propose a deal of sorts with the Obama administration: an expansion of coverage … in exchange for vastly more flexibility … even up to a full block grant of the program,” wrote Ben Domenech of the Heartland Institute. That’s a long shot, but worth pursuing by bold governors.

Besides Obamacare, there are many other programs ripe for pushback. The explosion of food stamps is one. The 83 separate (and overlapping) federal welfare programs cry out for spending cuts. According to Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, they cost $1.03 trillion a year. Speaking of costs, Romney and Republicans paid dearly for their near-silence in response to a Democratic onslaught on abortion and same-sex marriage. Acting as if a truce had been reached on social issues—at the very time Democrats insisted Republicans were waging a “war on women”—was an unforced error with dire consequences.

True, Republicans were put in an awkward position by two Senate candidates who talked stupidly about rape and abortion. But saying as little as possible in response to an issue trumpeted by the media didn’t work. Republicans failed to proclaim what the pro-life position really involves—that is, saving the lives of unborn children, not dismissing rape. The best Romney offered was a timid TV ad insisting he favors permitting abortion for rape victims.

Republicans allowed Democrats to frame the debate. GOP candidates were accused of opposing contraception, blocking women’s access to health care, and keeping women from regular cancer screenings. These preposterous charges were widely broadcast, yet went largely unanswered by Republicans, who gave up on an issue—abortion—from which they’d always benefited in elections.

On same-sex marriage, Republicans went into hiding, at their own expense. In the four states with gay marriage referendums, Romney averaged 41 percent of the vote. Opposition to same-sex marriage averaged 48 percent. The upshot was that Romney and Republicans refused to identify themselves with an issue that would have helped them. And not just any issue, but one that reflects the laws of 30 states upholding traditional marriage. Meanwhile, gays voted overwhelmingly for Obama and Democrats in the belief Republicans opposed gay marriage even if they didn’t say so.

After the election, liberals claimed the culture war is over and they’ve won. This isn’t true, but it will become so if Republicans remain silent. It’s time to push back.

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