When John Boehner was elected as the House Republican leader, he said he felt like the dog that caught the car. He had achieved a major goal, only to be confronted with the question: "What do I do now?"
If Republicans take back Congress, the party will be like the dog that caught the car. They will inherit an angry electorate that has voted for change in three consecutive election cycles, and the country will stand at a crossroads.
In one direction is big, centralized government that usurps the rights of states, local communities and individual Americans. Republican leaders have not yet made clear what the other direction is.
The Republican brand went stale earlier this decade, paving the way for two huge election losses and a new era of big government. As Newsweek boldly proclaimed in early 2009, "We are all socialists now."
Thankfully, four years of Democratic control of Congress, and two years of executive control, have reminded Americans what socialistic policies mean. The $161 billion budget deficit that Republicans left in fiscal 2007 has become a $1.47 trillion deficit; the national public debt has ballooned from $5 trillion to $9.2 trillion. Americans look with skepticism and disgust at the projected $2.6 trillion cost to implement the Democrats' health care bill.
"Socialist governments," Margaret Thatcher once said, "traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people's money." It's just that nobody expected the White House and the Democratic Congress to run out so quickly.
History will remember President Obama for his sweeping legislative successes and their resulting economic failure. Obama has hastened the looming financial catastrophe within our entitlement system, but he is just one in a long line of leaders who have failed to address the $60 trillion in unfunded entitlement liabilities faced by Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
The Republican leadership is trying, using the innovative approach of "listening." Americans can go online or use their cell phones to recommend spending cuts on the Republican whip's "YouCut" Web site. They can submit ideas to the Republican leader's site "America Speaking Out."
But listening only gets you so far. The GOP cannot serve the American people well by implying that catastrophe can be avoided by texting votes for cuts that, even if adopted, have little effect on our nation's growing debt.
A freeze in spending is good; eliminating earmarks is great; shutting entire Cabinet agencies is even better. Yet none of this puts a serious dent in our entitlement-driven debt problem.
Republicans should take a lesson from the Contract With America. In 1994, Republican candidates ran on promises that had been tested in polls and focus groups, and they won. They enjoyed some legislative successes over the next 12 years (such as welfare reform), but they failed to tackle the biggest problems. By 2006, the public had lost faith that they could govern better than Democrats.
The lesson is clear: Mere rhetoric and platitudes about lower taxes, less regulation, state and local control, and individual freedom from the growing power of the federal government will not be enough for a majority GOP to govern effectively after 2010.
As the elections approach, the Republican leadership must put forward a credible plan that reforms entitlements, simplifies the tax code and contains a viable energy policy. Their plan must provide a path to a balanced budget, a shrinking trade deficit, repayment of the national debt and more job creation.
History will reward Republicans if we are honest with the American people; but first we must be honest with ourselves.
Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, is the author of "Restoring the Republic" (WND Books, 2010).