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Being More Than the Opposition Party

In Politico, Representative Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, is quoted saying this:

It’s incumbent upon us now, I think there’s a window opening, where we become not the opposition party, but the alternative party. Which means we have an obligation to come forward with agendas and plans for how we would govern if we were in the majority in Washington. It’s starting to open.

That is, I think, precisely the right attitude for Republicans to have. In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that Republicans can’t do well, even very well, in the 2014 mid-term elections simply by opposing the president’s agenda. Mr. Obama is, after all, highly unpopular these days. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is toxic. And if historical trends hold, Democrats will suffer significant losses (the mid-term elections for the party of a president in his second term are usually awful).

Still, Republicans need to be bolder in offering up a governing agenda, for several reasons. First, voters tend to be future-oriented and want to know that a political party has a program that will improve their lives in a practical way.

Second, an oppositional mindset that may work in a mid-term might not work nearly as well in a presidential election (see the results of the 2010 mid-term elections v. the 2012 presidential election). If Republicans hope to reclaim the White House, then a lot of work needs to be done when it comes to winning the trust of the public on governing matters.

Third, the GOP, fairly or not, has a reputation as being too ideological, too reflexively anti-government, the Party of No. Presenting a compelling and intellectually serious agenda–one that deals with wage stagnation, the loss of blue-collar jobs and the lack of social mobility, rising poverty and exploding health-care and college costs, the collapse of the culture of marriage and reforms of the tax code, education, energy, and our immigration system–can help overcome that problem. (As a side note, and as I’ve pointed out before, it’s no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.) 

Fourth, a great political party should be eager to offer a governing agenda. Not to sound too high-minded about it, but presumably the reason Republicans want to win elections is to govern; and the reason they want to govern is they believe their ideas are better; and the reason they believe their ideas are better is they will promote prosperity, human flourishing and what the Founders referred to as “the public good.”

In the 1980s, one of the Republican Party’s main sources of attraction to younger conservatives like myself was its growing reputation for intellectual seriousness. “Of a sudden,” wrote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”

As it was then, so it should be again.


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