Republicans won the midterms. But they didn't win a mandate.
On Tuesday, as everyone predicted, the Republican Party won a majority in the Senate. And since the GOP also controls the House, Republicans will have control of both houses of Congress beginning in January. As a conservative, I am obviously happy with this. But I am not that happy.
Why? Firstly, this new Congress means two more years of do-nothing Washington. Anything good that the Republican Congress will pass will be vetoed by the president. (That threat of a veto doesn't mean the GOP Senate shouldn't pass a good health-care plan.)
Worse than the gridlock: Everyone in politics will immediately be consumed with the 2016 presidential election.
And then there's this: The midterm results most certainly do not mean that the Republican Party has earned a mandate.
Every time the Republican Party wins an election, the same line is trotted out: Finally, the American people are done with their flirtation with socialism, and realize they want real red-blooded conservative governance. And maybe that really is what the American people want deep down. But they haven't shown that at the polls thus far.
Winning a midterm congressional election against an unpopular, exhausted, lame-duck president is pretty much the easiest thing in national politics. Over the last few elections cycle, Americans have made a few things clear: They don't want the Obama agenda, which is why they will vote to frustrate it; but they actually like the Republican agenda even less, which is why they voted against a central-casting Mr. Republican in 2012. Some conservative activists claim that the 2012 election was a fluke caused by Mitt Romney's poor charisma (you know, we could have had a star like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich), but as Ramesh Ponnuru has shown, for all his many faults, Romney actually ran ahead of the generic Republican candidate.
The Republican brand is tarnished. And if conservatives want to actually govern the country, and implement conservative policies, and not just perpetuate jobs for lobbyists and consultants, they can't just win elections. They need to win a mandate.
There are lots of reasons why the GOP brand is in such bad shape. But they all boil down to a very simple truth: Middle-class Americans, who decide elections and are the backbone of this country's social structure, no longer believe that the Republican Party is on their side. They're not sure what the Democrats have on offer; but they know they don't trust the Republicans.
And why should they? On the issues regular Americans care about the most — job security, health care, raising a family — the Republican Party has nothing to say to them. Isn't it logical to conclude that the GOP doesn't care about them? They don't like ObamaCare, but if they think the GOP alternative is "You're on your own," they'd rather have the Affordable Care Act.
The Reagan and Gingrich revolutions were major successes — and precisely for that reason, the issues that those movements tackled are no longer middle-class families' primary concern. Inflation, crime, back-breaking middle-class taxes, welfare — all of these were decisively tackled, which means that middle-class families now care about other issues. And that means that the more the GOP runs on the winning issues of 1980, the more it makes itself irrelevant.
The point is not that the GOP should be more "moderate." That is not what I am suggesting. If anything, the GOP has been far too "moderate" — far too cozy with special interests, far too willing to confuse "pro-business" for "pro-market," far too willing to play the Washington game, far too willing to be the ones to run a welfare state built by liberals, with a tweak here and there, rather than reshape it.
The point, to the contrary, is to offer real, conservative solutions to the actual problems that the most crucial voting segments in America face, in order to win a mandate for sweeping conservative reform. It is the equation that squares the circle, that gets the GOP the electability that consultants understandably fret about and the policy gains that activists so rightly crave.
For several years now, some of the smartest Republican writers and wonks have developed precisely such an agenda: commonsense, sellable, workable conservative solutions to the most serious problems facing middle-class families today.
Tuesday's victory is a good sign, and a nice stepping stone to the possibility of true conservative governance in 2016. But this possibility will not be real unless the GOP and its presidential candidate realize that the GOP needs to win a mandate, and that in order to win a mandate, the party needs a better agenda.