Republicans are in danger of descending into small ball. They lambaste the president for being late with his budget. They scoff at his claim to have gone skeet shooting “all the time.” I’ll stipulate that it is poor form to miss a budget deadline and that the president engaged in some hyperbole with regard to his shooting activity. But really, aren’t there bigger fish to fry?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will deliver a big-picture policy speech at AEI today – Alex Wong/Getty Images


The big deal is not that he is late with his budget, but that he continues to hold devastating tax cuts over the heads of our military and refuses to engage seriously in entitlement reform. It is not that he exaggerates his shooting prowess, but that he has stuffed his bill full of  non-starters that are designed to get the GOP to say no rather than to get a deal. The risk for Republicans in dwelling on the small stuff is in looking petty and losing track of the big picture.

The president is neglecting his obligation to attend to our fiscal mess. He is showing contempt for our military by appointing a befuddled, inept defense secretary and pushing us into a defense sequestration that is wholly irresponsible and dangerous. That is a big deal. Republicans can send him a “clean” sequester replacement (the House has already found substitute cuts) and they can block Chuck Hagel’s confirmation. It is, with all due respect to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), incomprehensible to witness that performance and be sanguine about the prospect that Democrats will put him into office. It makes no sense to say Hagel is atrocious enough to vote no but not really atrocious enough to filibuster. He’s either unfit or he’s not, and if not, the Senate has not simply the right, but the obligation, to stop him.

On the fiscal side, the House can and should proceed with its own budget, removing President Obama’s fiscal tax giveaways, incorporating responsible entitlement reform and setting forth tax simplification. But they really need to think bigger than even that.

Today House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor is going to be delivering a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Its title “Making Life Work” — strikes me as precisely the big-picture, pro-growth and optimistic footing the Republicans should get to. It is important to say no to tax giveaways, no to Hagel and no to more spending, but it is equally, if not more, important to say what Republicans are for. In excerpts released earlier, Cantor argues, “We will advance proposals aimed at producing results in areas like education, health care, innovation, and job growth. Our solutions will be based on the conservative principles of self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family, and accountability in government. Our goal – to ensure every American has a fair shot at earning their success and achieving their dreams.” Well, good for him.

It is about time one party started talking about affirmative priorities. The excerpts provide a guide to where House Republicans are heading:

One of our priorities this year will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable….  Explaining that rising health care costs are depressing take-home pay is little consolation to a working mom. Her grocery bills are higher, her kids’ school needs are more expensive, rent is up – and now, she’s just trying to get by. And getting by is not the American Dream. . . .
In 1935, the Form 1040 was accompanied by a two-page instruction booklet. Today, taxpayers must wade through over 100 total pages of instructions. Just filling out a W-2 at a new job is confusing. You shouldn’t need a worksheet to know how many dependents you have. . . .Scientific breakthroughs are the result of – and have helped contribute to –America being the world’s capital of innovation and opportunity in nearly every field. For this and many other reasons, people across the globe want to become a part of our country. We must never diminish that desire, or worse, become a place that is no longer desirable. . . . While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws, and that’s what makes tackling the issue of immigration reform so difficult. We must balance respect for the rule of law and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally, with care for people and families, most of whom just want to make a better life, and contribute to America.
We are committed to ensuring that the next generation does indeed have it better than the one before it. Because, when we lose that promise, we lose the absolute promise of everything that has been built before us.

Fortunately, Cantor is not alone. A week or so ago, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell addressed the National Review Institute and made a related argument, telling the crowd that 60 percent of Americans live under a GOP governor and they know conservatism “works.” The vision of conservatism McDonnell speaks about — as Cantor does — is one that delivers results that affect people’s lives. (“If you want balanced budgets, surpluses, job growth and results, then you need to get to Columbus, Lansing, Madison, Trenton and our capitol city of Richmond.”) In McDonnell’s telling, it is about fiscal restraint and providing good roads, schools and business opportunity. He urged conservatives to “explain conservatism to all Americans, especially independent voters, and demonstrate, through empirical results, why conservatism actually works best for America.”

The most important statement that McDonnell made — and which national Republicans would be wise to follow — is not simply to “talk about abstract principles. . . [but] to connect our principles to policies that improve voters daily lives.” That is Cantor’s task as well and that of his Senate and House GOP colleagues.

The Republicans absolutely must stop bad things (e.g. tax hikes, sequestration) from happening. (They’ve got no standing to complain if they refuse to filibuster and then disaster strikes on Hagel’s watch.) That, however, is the beginning and not the end. The problem with Obama and the opportunity for Republicans is not a late budget or a shooting boast — it is that Obama has failed to defend defense and to construct an optimist, pro-growth vision of America in which people can achieve their dreams and realize their potential. Since he isn’t doing it, Republicans better do so.