If history has taught conservatives anything, it is that having Republicans in power is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition to advance a conservative agenda.
During the George W. Bush era, for instance, Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Spending soared, the federal role in education grew, and entitlements underwent their most significant expansion since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Republicans claim to have rediscovered their commitment to limited government principles as a reaction to President Obama. But with the possibility of retaking control of the Senate within their grasp, Republicans have decided to pursue a strategy of playing it safe.
The thinking among many Republican strategists is that with Obama’s popularity in the toilet, it’s better to make the 2014 election a referendum on him rather than running on specific policies that could leave the GOP open to attack.
This is not an isolated example of Republicans undercutting conservative principles when it comes to entitlements.
Crossroads GPS, an arm of the Karl Rove-founded political action committee American Crossroads, has produced ads attacking Democrats for backing changes to entitlements — programs conservatives know are unsustainable and desperately in need of reform.
“Arkansas seniors depend on Social Security and Medicare,” a narrator says in a Crossroads ad attacking Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. “It’s troubling that Senator Pryor said we should overhaul Social Security and Medicare.”
On the House side, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has declined to offer any sort of document along the lines of the 1994 Contract with America or the 2010 Pledge to America, choosing instead to speak in broad strokes at a speech to the American Enterprise Institute.
If conservatives had reason to be confident that a Republican Senate majority (and eventually a GOP White House) would govern conservatively, perhaps there would be a better case for waiting until after the heat of an election season to lay out policy details.
The problem is that it’s always election season — meaning there’s always an available excuse. As soon as the midterms are over, the focus of the political world will turn immediately to the 2016 presidential election. There will be voices warning that a Republican Senate shouldn’t be too bold in passing legislation in 2015 or 2016 because it could undercut the presidential nominee. Conservatives will be told that retaking the White House is the only way to implement conservative reforms. By 2017, the excuse may be that Republicans don’t want to fall into the same political trap as Obama and “overreach” on policy, risking a backlash in the 2018 midterms. And so on.
To be sure, some Republicans understand that merely skating by isn’t good enough. Nebraska U.S. Senate candidate Ben Sasse, for instance, has actually proposed an alternative to Obamacare.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a likely presidential candidate, has spent this year rolling out national policy proposals on energy and healthcare.
Sens. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have also articulated policies aimed at reforming the tax code and improving opportunity for lower- and middle-income Americans.
When I interviewed House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., he criticized Republicans who believed in playing it safe.
“This idea of running as a referendum, assuming a wave, assuming you’ve got the wind at your back, assuming with an unpopular president we therefore by default will win, I don’t buy that,” he told me. “I think you gotta give people a reason to vote for you.”
Given Obama’s unpopularity, Republicans could still have a politically successful election season without a clear agenda. But they will never win the policy debate if they run away from it.