Republicans need agenda if they capture Congress 

If Republicans were James Bond villains, this would be the moment in the movie when they chuckle and say deviously, “Everything is going according to plan.”

The president’s approval rating continues to fall. Last week Gallup found that Congress is the least popular institution in the land. The GOP maintains a slight lead in the congressional generic ballot, a metric in which the Republicans typically underperform. What was recently unthinkable — that the GOP could take one or both houses of Congress this November — is a real possibility. If only Republicans knew what to do when (and if) they return to power.

True, there are some conservatives and Republicans who believe an agenda isn’t necessary. Let the Democrats fall under their own weight, they say. Then we can clean up the mess. Alternative policies, in their view, would only give liberals and Democrats something to demagogue in the campaign. Better to remain cautious. Better to wait until the storm is over.

They’re wrong. Not only is such a strategy timid, it is also a false reading of the last two years in American politics. After all, the Democrats are a case study in the perils of victory by default. It was not a strong alternative agenda that netted the Democrats 55 House seats and 16 Senate seats between 2006 and 2008. The party made those gains by vigorously opposing an unpopular war, an unpopular president, a corrupt Republican majority, and an economy in recession. The Democrats won by being the other guy.

Look where that has brought him and his party. A lack of new ideas and victory through opposition may have provided the Democrats with tactical victories. But every day those victories look more and more Pyrrhic — indeed, they may have opened the door for Republican strategic victory in 2010 and 2012 and beyond.

Liberals and Democrats write all this off, of course. The reason President Barack Obama is unpopular, they argue, isn’t that his agenda is too liberal for public consumption. It’s that the economy continues to be in the doldrums. That’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.

Obama’s agenda has hurt him. It is hard to think of an era in which the political majority pushed so many unpopular initiatives in such a short span of time. From the stimulus to the mandate to cap and trade to flirting with a trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court to suing Arizona for enforcing federal immigration law, it’s almost as if this administration enjoys being on the wrong side of public opinion. Can liberals honestly believe that these policies would be more popular if America were at full employment?

The reason the economy hurts Obama is that his agenda has not produced a recovery. At best, the legislation he has signed into law has delayed the financial reckoning. At worst, it has actively hindered recovery by increasing the regulatory and tax burdens on business and crowding out private investment.

And so a principled and cheerful opposition to the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legislation, and a promise to overturn that legislation’s worst elements, is the beginning of a Republican agenda. But a better new vision must come too.

This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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