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National Review Says the GOP Senate Shouldn't Bother Governing. They're Right.

Getty Images/Alex Wong

When Mitch McConnell officially becomes Senate majority leader in January, he will have to chart a new path for Senate Republicans. With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, they will have trouble blaming the Democrats for Congressional gridlock. A number of Republican politicians and conservative commentators have implored McConnell to work across the aisle and actually govern over the next two years. But the editorial board of National Review has a different message that is a sharp indictment of our political system: don’t even try to govern.

Liberals are mocking the piece on Twitter, but the reasoning makes a lot of sense. If Republicans set high expectations for themselves, they are bound to fail. After all, Democrats can block legislation at will by using the filibuster. As we’ve seen from the past few years, the media will not report that Democrats blocked legislation that had support of more than 50 senators. They’ll report that Congress failed—and the blame will fall squarely on the GOP. Democrats learned this the hard way over the past few years.

National Review also lays out three other reasons why Republicans shouldn’t try to govern. Policies that the party passes will be too focused on big business, they will further divide the party between tea party conservatives and the establishment, and any successful legislating will earn the GOP as much political credit as it does President Obama.

What should Republicans do instead? National Review wants them to lay out a governing agenda. That means not compromising with the president on entitlement reform, for instance, or an Obamacare replacement, but putting together a conservative platform in anticipation of 2016. “[It] means being a responsible party, to be sure, just as the conventional wisdom has it,” the editors write. “But part of that responsibility involves explaining what Republicans stand for—what, that is, they would do if they had the White House.”

This is a tight needle to thread. “Being a responsible party”—a.k.a., not shutting down the government or threatening a default—is not an easy task. When happens when Senator Ted Cruz uses the debt ceiling to demand policy concessions from Obama? It’s one thing to lay out a conservative agenda. It’s another thing to rally the party behind it. “Republicans should also advance conservative ideas on taxes, jobs, energy, higher-education subsidies, and much else,” they add. “For the most part that won’t involve either battle royale or deal-cutting with Obama; it will involve putting up legislation that Senate Democrats filibuster. And that’s all right: Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016, but many Senate Democrats will.”

This is probably right—and it is indicative of how dysfunctional Washington has become. When most legislation could pass by majority vote and policymakers frequently crossed party lines, divided government could still enact new laws and programs. That is no longer the case. We’re rapidly entering an era where a party must control the White House, House and Senate—the latter with a filibuster proof majority—to move legislation. If you don’t control all three, then your best political and legislative strategy is not to compromise, but to play politics so that you can control all three in the future. The National Review editors have figured this out. I’m just not sure it as easy to do as they think.