Many analysts attribute the strong Republican trend to the visible anger of millions of Americans.
Among some in Democratic leadership and the media, "anger" is shorthand for dismissing the scope and legitimacy of frustration -- which found expression in the tea party movement -- with the current direction of federal policy. But whatever criticisms may be leveled at a particular tea party spokesperson or candidate, it is unfair -- and foolish -- to view the movement and the more than one-third of Americans who say they support its objectives as an irresponsible fringe. The vast majority are responsible citizens convinced that federal tax, spending and regulatory policies are fundamentally off-track -- so much so that they seriously threaten future prosperity and freedom, requiring ordinary individuals to become actively involved in the political process to set things right. This is how it is supposed to work in a representative system.
It is also mistaken, in my view, for those who applaud the November election outcome to focus primarily on voter anger.
This brings into focus important strategy choices facing the congressional Republicans whose numbers have now dramatically increased.
Some recommend resolute opposition on all fronts to President Barack Obama and his reduced cadre of Democratic congressional cohorts. This could include efforts to repeal or substantially change "Obamacare" and other administration legislative and regulatory policies to date. This course, some argue, will cause public anger against the president and his legislative allies to continue to intensify, making more likely an overwhelming Republican victory in 2012.
Furthermore, they caution that even attempting to advocate specific Republican proposals, much less attempting to adopt them, risks courting opposition from individuals and groups who might be affected by such reforms -- and that debate within Republican ranks over particular reform ideas would weaken the overall thrust of GOP unity based on anger arising from public rejection of President Obama's agenda.
I respectfully disagree with a "just say no" approach. Opposing unsound administration policies remains important. But simple, unadorned "opposition" is mistaken, from both the policy and political perspectives.
Voters, including those who associate with the tea party movement, want their representatives to pursue responsible policies that comport with our traditions of political and economic freedom. This is why I believe the best course for congressional Republicans is to attempt to outline and meet some very important challenges to the overall strength of our nation and its role in the world, and to do so with far-sighted vigor and enthusiasm.
Build economic optimism: Objective No. 1 must be to build public optimism that our economy is going to grow much stronger, and that this growth will bring about more confidence to invest in new products and services that will create more jobs and enhance our country's ability to compete with economies of other countries around the globe. To that end, it is vital that we immediately restore certainty and stability to both business and private investment decisions by ending now the threat of higher individual tax rates.
Cut federal spending: Second, we must reduce federal spending by instituting careful analysis of the largest areas of expenditure that have the most promise for identifying present and future savings. This includes backing Pentagon budget reforms proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The secretary has courageously demanded major management improvements and cutbacks in particular weapons systems, while encouraging our allies to assume some responsibilities we have shouldered in the defense of civilized values and the quest for global peace and stability.
Enact entitlement reform: Third, we must make responsible proposals for entitlement reforms. Many argue that even discussing changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits endangers Republicans in seeking continued public support for a reform agenda. This is the view that sees Americans as rhetorically conservative but operationally liberal when it comes to government benefits. I believe this cynical characterization is underestimating the citizens who overwhelmingly backed Republican candidates this November.
In these and other areas, congressional Republicans have a historic opportunity to take the lead in moving our country toward constructive solutions vital to its long-term strength and prosperity. I believe Americans are prepared and indeed eager, as perhaps never before, for leaders who will responsibly address difficult challenges, rather than ducking controversial issues out of fear of the political repercussions.
Independent voters and, indeed, a great many people from traditional Democratic backgrounds will be encouraged by this approach and will join Republicans in supporting our courageous and visionary leadership. Let's not disappoint them.
Richard Lugar is the senior senator from the state of Indiana. This is a condensed version of an essay that originally appeared in The Ripon Forum.