Now that Republicans are in control of both chambers of Congress, what should they do?
"Prove they can govern," says a CNN headline. "Show they can govern," suggests the New York Times. "Prove that we can govern with maturity," offers Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.
Different people mean different things by that phrase. Some of them merely mean that Republicans, having control of Congress, should avoid doing things that make the party look immature, irresponsible or incompetent. That's surely true, and an important contribution that congressional Republicans can make to their party's future success.
Others, though, appear to mean that Republicans have to show that they can get a lot of their bills into law. If that's the test, I can tell you the results already: The Republican Party can't govern the country during the next two years. Modern America can't be governed from Capitol Hill because the executive branch has too much power.
Republicans can work with Democrats and President Barack Obama on legislation, which is one way to participate in governing. But it isn't the only way. Given the divergent views the parties hold on most issues, it isn't a way that will even be possible very often. And proving they can work with Democrats isn't Republicans' most important political task.
That task is to devise and promote an attractive conservative agenda to place before the voters. Unlike governing the country, that's an achievable goal.
Republicans could, for one thing, stand for a credible alternative to the Affordable Care Act that enables roughly as many people to get health insurance, but without all of Obamacare's expense and coercion. They already have a template in the plan introduced last year by Sens. Richard Burr, Tom Coburn and Orrin Hatch.
Republican senators also have a range of policies to expand higher-education options in mind. One would reform the accreditation process so it's less of a cartel for established institutions. Another would make it possible for companies to finance college for their future employees. Also on the table is a proposal to dock colleges associated with high rates of student-loan defaults.
On tax reform, finally, Sens. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio will soon announce a plan that lightens the tax burden on investment by companies and provides relief for overtaxed families.
Not many of these ideas are at all likely to become law in the next two years. Advancing them nonetheless would serve several purposes. It would lay the groundwork for eventually enacting them, doubtless in refined form, under a more supportive president. It would offer Republican candidates a promising agenda to run on in the next election. And it would strengthen the impression that Republicans have solutions to some of the problems facing most people.
The notion that Republicans should "prove they can govern" sounds high-minded, and so arguments to the contrary can come across as cynical. We should remember, though, that when Democrats took over both chambers of Congress in 2006, neither journalists nor party leaders said that it was up to them to prove they could govern. And while they sometimes worked with President George W. Bush, they didn't campaign in the next election on the basis of how cooperative they had been, or of how many laws they had passed.
There was nothing illegitimate about this behavior. It's a good thing when a political party develops an agenda that responds to the country's needs, and places that agenda before the public for debate and inspection. If Republicans do that successfully, the public may just give them enough power to actually prove they can govern in 2017.
• 01/13/14: Newly empowered Congress passing tax reform in 2015? Not a chance, and here's why Ramesh Ponnuru