Republicans are starting to think about how to answer the Robert Redford question.
You know the scene. In the 1972 movie "The Candidate," the Redford character, having won the election, turns to his political consultant and asks, "What do I do now?"
Many Republicans fear they will look as clueless as Redford. They entered this campaign cycle with little hope of winning congressional majorities. Now they have a good chance to do so in the House and an outside chance in the Senate.
Some cynical Republicans say candidates should just harp on their opposition to the policies of the Obama Democrats and figure out what to do if they're in the majority when they get there. Others say they should present public policy alternatives.
Some young House Republicans have put out a call for voters to e-mail their ideas. And House Republican leaders say they'll put together something in the nature of a 1994-style Contract with America over the August recess.
That's a good idea. Politicians like to win elections. But if they re not in the business in order to shape public policy, why are they there at all?
Let's put this in some historic perspective.
Liberal historians like to depict the past 100 years as a story of step-by-step progress from small government to big government, a progress they see as both inevitable and desirable.
But another way to look at it is to note that after each spasm of big government legislation, there has been a strong voter backlash. That was the case in the big Republican victory in the 1946 off-year elections right after World War II. And in the 1966 elections, about which I wrote last week, after the passage of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
It happened again with Ronald Reagan's 44-state landslide in 1980, when Republicans won a Senate majority for the first time in 28 years. And again in 1994, after the Clinton tax increases and health care plan, when Republicans won both houses in Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Polls tell us it could happen again this November.
The question is what winning Republicans did with their victories. The answers vary.
After 1946, Republicans passed a big tax cut, ended wartime wage and price controls and limited the powers of labor unions. These were enduring public policy successes.
After 1966, Republicans didn't achieve much. Richard Nixon, elected president in 1968, continued the anti-poverty program, instituted wage and price controls, created the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, established racial quotas and preferences and proposed a guaranteed annual income -- not a conservative success story.
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