House Republicans have gathered at their retreat right now and are trying to figure out the way forward for the party, amid disasters like Plan B, the Sandy relief vote, the debt ceiling debacle, and the general crisis-to-crisis atmosphere that has left them deeply unpopular. One idea: Trying never, ever, ever again to use the word “rape.” Moving right along…

As Greg has been arguing, Republicans are playing a losing hand on the debt limit fight and ultimately will just fold and move on. This gets to the core problem they face: The “move on” part. What exactly are they going to move on to?

I realized this when I was reading Philip Klein’s sensible advice to conservatives this morning:

[I]t’s worth looking back at the Democrats’ strategy following their takeover of Congress in 2006. Despite their strong rhetoric, they ultimately caved to President Bush by agreeing to continue funding the Iraq War. This generated a forceful backlash among their base, but it also enabled them to continue running against Bush’s handling of Iraq, rather than allowing Bush to change the subject to “Democrats don’t care about our troops.”

During this time, Democrats also pushed legislation that furthered their agenda — including an expansion of the children’s health care program SCHIP (which Bush vetoed) and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which Republicans blocked in the Senate). Both bills were quickly passed and enacted once Obama became president.

This raises a question: What sort of serious, substantive policy initiatives like this could Republicans push on their side? There isn’t anything. And that’s the crux of their problem.

The core of the GOP agenda remains the Ryan budget, but that had very few specific cuts and the numbers never actually added up. They certainly could continue trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they’ve long since given up on offering a replacement.

Republicans, that is, don’t actually have a program with popular items that they could run on and then pass if they won. After all, they didn’t run on their Medicare program in 2010 and 2012; instead, they called anyone who accused them of cutting Medicare a liar and instead ran against Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare. What exactly is the GOP equivalent, just in terms of swing-voter popularity, of Lilly Ledbetter or SCHIP right now? Beating up on Planned Parenthood?

There are no items in any Republican legislative agenda that are workable, are substantively developed, and would have any appeal to swing voters. If there were, Mitt Romney would have run on them, and not on a combination of out of context Obama quotes and proposals that were ripped apart for failing basic arithmetic. This is the GOP’s core problem — and the real cause of the crisis-to-crisis showdowns we’re seeing with the White House and Democrats. A party that doesn’t have a well developed policy agenda that could actually win broad appeal simply can’t function as a normal opposition party.