What does a Republican want?

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Congressional Republicans have shifted from attacking Obamacare for being a socialist tyranny that, in its spare time, manages to be the "biggest job killer in the country," to attacking Obamacare for delivering a substandard user experience on the Internet. Bad faith comes in mini as well as maxi sizes.

Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers wrote last week that Republicans would be in much better political shape if they had a legislative agenda, or at least something generally positive to propose for the country:

"The talk about the demise of the Republican Party and the wounds the party has suffered as a result of the recent showdown over the budget/Obamacare/debt/whatever else is overstated, but we still need to be for something realistic and offer plausible solutions. We have no shortage of challenges. Now would be a perfect time to introduce a unified GOP alternative to Obamacare. Not stray random ideas or piecemeal retreads, but a real solution."

Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in Bloomberg View, interviewed a Republican senator who is "in the middle" of Senate Republicans ideologically. This politician has a slightly deeper concern: "He doesn't think that his party is ready to govern the country."

The two problems are related. While Democrats are fighting to protect the gains of President Barack Obama's first term, Republicans continue to define themselves by what they're against. The results are mixed at best, with surveys showing voters view Congressional Republicans as obstructionists.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman became the spokesman for Republican anomie during the government shutdown when he said Republicans would not tolerate being disrespected. "We have to get something out of this," he said. "And I don't know what that even is."

The quote rang a bell. Last winter, when Republicans collectively decided to embrace the sequestration cuts they had previously decried, Republican operative Ralph Reed made a similarly aimless point to The New York Times. "The sequester and winning that fight -- however you define what winning means -- is critical for the party," Mr. Reed said.

How critical can a goal be if you can't even identify it?

There will be no real "winning" for Republicans in Washington until there is something approximating realistic Republican policy. The party budget blueprint, created by Rep. Paul Ryan, was so unfeasible that it collapsed before getting out of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the conflict between standard conservatives and Tea Partiers is less about policy than nostalgia. The first group views tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation for business as the route back to 1980s prosperity. The second wants to repeal the New Deal on the way to a Jeffersonian republic.

Curiously, neither 19th-century nor 1980s policy is well suited to the moment. With 50 million Americans lacking health insurance, Republicans offer no plausible means of expanding either insurance or access to health care. With the middle class under duress and inequality high and rising, they offer tax cuts for the wealthy and reduced subsidies for the poor and unemployed. Their response to climate change is another helping of coal.

Ronald Reagan lived in a different world, when 80 percent of the nation was white and zero percent was connected to the World Wide Web. Federal tax receipts as a percentage of gross domestic product are lower today than they were after Reagan's big tax cuts. Employment in manufacturing has shrunk by more than a third. Global trade, in total dollars, has increased about tenfold. Long-term unemployment is grueling.

Democrats are at a loss navigating some 21st-century challenges. But rightly or wrongly, Obamacare and cap-and-trade -- both derived from conservative roots -- target real-time problems. Immigration reform, along with subsidies for the poor and alternative energy, do likewise. That's not the same as producing a dynamic economy chock full of high-paying jobs, but as both a governing agenda and a political program it beats nostalgia.

Republican governors are not all as hapless as their Washington brethren. Governors in Florida and Texas, for example, have recognized that access to college is a serious problem, and they're trying to do something about it. But evidence of congressional Republicans offering similarly constructive proposals is scarce. Perhaps after another round of attacks on the health care law, they might carve out some time to think about that.

Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.


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