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Countdown to GOP Self-Destruction?

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With most Americans undeniably dissatisfied with the direction of their government, why would some congressional conservatives insist on identifying Republicans as unyielding defenders of a broken status quo? Their implacable obsession with uprooting ObamaCare and their die-hard resistance to immigration reform all but guarantee near-term legislative defeats and long-term devastation to future party prospects.

First, ObamaCare. Under relentless pressure from a handful of Republican senators led by Texas’ Ted Cruz, the House on Friday passed a bill that would defund ObamaCare but keep money flowing for other government operations through Dec. 15.

But all observers—including Mr. Cruz himself—acknowledge that the Senate will overhaul the House’s measure to restore the health-care funding. When the bill is then kicked back to the House, the public will face a government shutdown as the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. At that point, the GOP will confront a painful but inevitable choice: surrendering to the president and his allies, either before or after a wildly unpopular government shutdown.

Rather than confronting these incontestable realities, too many conservatives choose to embrace the role of sure losers. To use a military analogy, there is no glory in charging recklessly up a hill when you know your forces will be mowed down by enemy fire before reaching the top. Glory comes in making the enemy lose. The GOP shouldn’t pursue noble defeat while standing on principle. You build momentum for a movement by achieving legislative victories, not by racking up high-profile losses.

This doesn’t mean that conservatives should abandon all efforts to reduce the pernicious impact of the Affordable Care Act. But ObamaCare critics must adopt achievable goals rather than raising false hopes among the base by focusing on grand schemes to repeal or totally defund the program.

An emphasis on fixing ObamaCare, or delaying its more obnoxious aspects, would resonate far more effectively with an increasingly cynical public. That approach would also address complaints from many quarters that Republicans talk almost exclusively about what they don’t want, without putting forward their own proposals for repair.

Such a negative-only attitude describes much of the GOP opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. Earlier this year, Republicans denounced a flawed Senate compromise, but failed to come forward with their own credible plan to improve a dysfunctional immigration system that has become a national embarrassment.

It simply isn’t enough to continue demanding more money for border fences and drones along the Rio Grande. Everyone knows that the Democratic-controlled Senate would never allow immigration reform that only addresses border security. And no matter how effectively such a fence might help block future migrants, it does nothing to address the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

Since overwhelming majorities in both parties reject the impractical concept of mass deportations, there’s only one way to make serious reductions in the unconscionable number of unauthorized aliens. They need to be given a path to change their status from illegal to legal, albeit a slow path to make up for their past rule-breaking. Republicans who oppose such common-sense reform confirm the GOP’s image as the “party of no,” always ready to oppose reform but unwilling to present constructive alternatives.

If immigration reform passes Congress and winds up on the president’s desk, it’s easy to imagine most Americans celebrating the fresh starts given to millions of unauthorized immigrants and the extension of the rule of law to a significant segment of the workforce. But if immigration reform dies, then what, exactly, would restrictionists celebrate? That, once again, attempts to rationalize a dysfunctional immigration system have failed?

On ObamaCare and immigration reform, too many Republicans have cast themselves as classic villains in a heart-tugging melodrama of Democratic design. Liberal Democrats play the do-gooders trying to give something to the American people, while conservative Republicans look like misers determined to take it away. Conservatives rightly deplore many details in these sweeping legislative packages. But like many politicians, the public hasn’t read the legislation either and instead focuses on the contrast between liberal “reformers” and conservatives who would rather leave things broken.

The GOP’s only hope comes from bold conservative governors, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Kansas’ Sam Brownback and, yes, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who are making a discernible impact on the lives of their citizens. The 30 Republican governors—especially in the 24 states where they control both houses of their legislatures—don’t have the luxury of sacrificing themselves on the national stage for the purity of their principles. They have no choice but to face up to the grubby, imperfect business of governance. If only those in Congress would follow their lead.

In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. memorably defined conservatism as a willingness to “stand athwart history yelling Stop.” At the current juncture, with the road ahead perilous and uncertain, it still makes sense to slow onrushing traffic. But yelling “Stop” isn’t enough. The GOP must supplement that warning by offering clear directions for a better route to American revival.

A version of this column appeared first in the WALL STREET JOURNAL.

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