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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is shown on Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 2021, in Washington.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is shown on Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 2021, in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Mitch McConnell knew this would happen.

For months, the Senate Republican leader had been telling anyone who would listen — other senators, party donors, even the occasional pundit — that the party should not run on a detailed agenda during the midterm campaign this fall. Republicans were already positioned to do well.

Why hand the Democrats a chance to launch attacks on a Republican agenda?

Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, didn’t agree. He released an “11 Point Plan” that includes, he says, 128 policies. (That number is padded: Treating socialism “as an enemy combatant which aims to destroy our prosperity and freedom,” for instance, is not a policy.)

Sure enough, Democrats found vulnerabilities: chiefly the plan’s insistence that “all Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount.” Since, as the plan notes, “over half of Americans pay no income tax,” that plank sounds like a tax increase for a majority of the country. Another Scott idea the Democrats are happy to publicize is to require all federal legislation to lapse after five years — which, they say, would put Social Security and Medicare in danger.

Democrats have attempted to present Scott’s ideas as a project of the entire Republican Party, a task made easier by the fact that Scott is the chairman of the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm. (He says he released the plan in his capacity as an individual senator, but nobody cares.) White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that “the Senate GOP plan” would be “the biggest tax hike of the century.”

Scott defended his plan in The Wall Street Journal: “Working Americans already pay taxes on their income, and retirees have paid plenty. The change we need is to require those who are able-bodied but won’t work to pay a small amount so we’re all in this together.”

He is not, he says, treating the tens of millions of Americans who are retired, or who pay payroll taxes but not income taxes, as freeloaders. That position is more defensible, politically and intellectually, than his original one, but it is a change. Only by including both groups can you say “over half of Americans” are non-payers.

The upshot: Scott is on defense, Democrats are talking about his plan more than his fellow Republicans are, and the “old Crow” — that’s what Donald Trump calls McConnell — has some reason for crowing.

But Scott also has something important right. A party seeking power has a moral obligation to give voters a sense of how it would wield that power. That doesn’t mean Republicans have to announce a list of 128 policies they want to push for. It does mean that they should, individually or corporately, share their thoughts about their most important priorities for the federal government.

Some, even many, of those priorities could be negative: We’re going to stop the Democrats from raising taxes. (Actually, the Democrats are doing a pretty good job of stopping themselves at the moment.) Others might require more action. Republicans have been curiously quiet about extending the many provisions of their own 2017 tax reform that are set to expire in the next few years. That issue didn’t make Scott’s list; it should have.

Public concern about inflation is rising, and Republicans generally say that President Joe Biden’s spending is partly to blame. It’s a reasonable criticism. It’s also reasonable to ask what they would have the government do about inflation, or about spending. They’re mostly not saying. The section of Scott’s plan about the economy does not even mention inflation.

The debate between McConnell and Scott, then, is narrow. McConnell explicitly denies that Republicans need to run on policies; Scott implicitly denies that they need to think much about them. The two sides of the argument bolster each other. McConnell’s stance creates a Republican policy vacuum that individual senators are tempted to fill, even with ill-considered ideas. When the poorly vetted ideas emerge, Republicans conclude that McConnell was right all along.

McConnell is winning this argument, which is probably for the best for his party’s electoral fortunes this year. Whether it’s in the party’s, or the country’s, long-term interest: That’s a different question.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review, a contributor to CNN and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.


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