Tuesday's victories allow the Republican Party, at least at the Congressional level, to be an effective opposition party, not an effective governing party. The distinction is crucial.
For the past two years the G.O.P. has been essentially powerless. All that has changed. Because they control the House, Republicans can force a series of votes that will go a long way to define them during the next 24 months. In January, for example, they can pass legislation extending the Bush tax cuts. They can extend the moratorium on earmarks, hold weekly votes on cutting spending and push legislation repealing and defunding the health care law.
None of these things are likely to become law. But what Republicans can do is provide a governing blueprint — and therefore an alternative governing agenda to what President Obama has done. If the president is willing to find common ground with Republicans, terrific. If not, so be it. What Republicans need to understand is that the next two years will be characterized more by debates over policy and governing philosophy than enacted laws.
The advantage Republicans have is they can prove their governing bone fides thanks to some fine new governors — like John Kasich, Tom Corbett and Scott Walker — who will be added to an already impressive group that includes Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell and Haley Barbour among them.
The other thing Republicans can accomplish is to show they are mature, sober and principled. They should focus on policies and governance, not on personal attacks and Congressional investigations. They should speak honestly about the nature of the problems our nation faces, particularly on the fiscal side. They need to radiate competence rather than zeal, a commitment to reform government rather than to simply discredit it.
In sum: In what they do and say, Republicans need to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose that matches this moment.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, where he served as deputy assistant to the president.