David Frum

Obama's Fighting Speech - Part 4

01.23.13 3:00 PM ET

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

So how should Republicans respond to the president's aggressive approach?

The very first thing to do is to accept the basic political fact that a party that holds only a (reduced) majority in one house of Congress can't impose its own agenda. Philip Klein argued this point well a couple of weeks ago:

Conservatives should recognize that even though they can block key items of the liberal agenda with control of the House, they cannot advance the conservative agenda with Obama as president and Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader.

Just this one first step would be a giant break-through. Republicans engaged in large and dangerous self-delusion after the 2010 elections. They thought they had regained their governing majority of the 1980s, based on a big win in a small electorate. As some of us spent two years warning - not very effectively I'm sad to say - the 2012 electorate was bound to look very different from the 2010 electorate, and success in the off-year no way guaranteed success in the presidential year. My next guess: accelerating economic recovery over the next 24 means will mean that the 2014 electorate will be less angry than the 2010 electorate. Conservatives are a political minority, and are likely to remain one for some time to come.

Second, Republicans need to recognize a hard political fact, the same hard fact on which the president built his address: the party's brand identity is badly damaged. The president dared upbraid Republicans in the terms in which he did because he felt confident his criticisms would resonate with the public. The congressional party has allowed itself to behave in ways that seem frightening, extreme, and provocative to many people - with every act of overstatement amplified and repeated not only by hostile media (nothing to be done about that) but, worse, by an over-enthusiastic conservative media with an agenda and interests of its own.

The congressional GOP needs to commence a detoxification process aimed at rebranding itself as a responsible, reasonable, governing force - one that seeks to represent more than just the ultra-conservatives, a force that can be trusted by moderate-minded Americans.

Third, Republicans should fight for small wins on process issues. Keith Hennessy offered a smart post yesterday underscoring the value of pushing Congress to return to a more regular budget process. Such achievements are both significant in themselves as moves to reform, better governance, and spending restraint. They also check Democratic momentum and solidify Republican identity in ways that can appeal to the widest range of Republicans. What not to do? Repeat the record of the House Republicans in the 112th Congress, who held more than 10 votes to ban or restrict abortion rights - none of which made the slightest difference to the actual abortion law of the United States.

Fourth, Republicans should reconcile themselves to lesser-evilism. For example: most Republicans disagree with me that a carbon tax would be a good idea. But almost all Republicans will likely agree that a carbon tax is a better idea than EPA rule-making to reduce carbon emissions by regulatory process. Preventing things from being worse is a political victory too, and oftentimes the most important political victory, especially if it keeps open the possibility of living to fight another day.

When you don't have muscle, you need brains.