Ever since it became apparent that Republicans had a decent chance to win control of the U.S. House, it's been equally apparent that real political power carried real political risks for this particular incarnation of the GOP. They've been incredibly lucky to escape responsibility for the economy and the fiscal situation created by their party from 2001 to 2009; that's been the real gift of the Tea Party movement: the claim that today's Republicans are appalled at the record of the Bush-DeLay GOP, even though they support most of the same policies, and probably don't have the political will to reverse the ones they claim to despise (who will be the first GOP leader to demand repeal of the Medicare Rx Drug Benefit?).
But going forward, now that they control the House and aspire to gain control of the Senate and the executive branch in the next election, Republicans will be forced to work for an actual agenda. And as Paul Waldman nicely explains in The American Prospect, this can produce a great pivot in the political climate of the country, very fast:
As a long history of public-opinion research has made clear -- and as events continue to remind us -- Americans are "symbolic conservatives" but "operational liberals." In other words, they like the idea of limited government, but they also like just about everything government does. Good things happen to the party that can successfully pander to both impulses, which is why we saw so many ads from Republicans...condemning Democrats for passing a big-government health-care plan because it would ... curtail the growth of Medicare.
Perhaps they're just being cautious as they get used to their new majority, but in the last week, Republicans have steadfastly refused to say what their professed desire to limit government would actually entail. Press them hard on what they want to cut, and they'll answer "earmarks," which would be fine were it not for the fact that a) earmarks do not appropriate new money; they merely direct money that has already been appropriated, and b) the value of all earmarks amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget....
If there's one thing Republicans have been clear about, it's their desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Even here, though, they don't want to get too specific. As you've no doubt heard many times, a bare majority of the public opposes "health-care reform" (or "Obamacare"), while substantial majorities favor almost all the major provisions of the law. Once again, Republicans can win the vague, general argument but not the specific one. Faced with the impossibility of repealing the entire act (which Obama would veto), Republicans have said they'll try to dismantle it piece by piece. Try that, however, and they're suddenly attacking not "health-care reform" but those particular things people like.
That isn't to say Republicans will inevitably be punished for attempting to repeal the ACA. Pushing repeal will only be dangerous for them if Democrats make it so. Republicans will suffer if they're attacked aggressively for wanting to reopen the Medicare prescription-drug "doughnut hole," for wanting to kick young people off their parents' insurance, or for wanting to give the insurance companies the ability to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. Those are all provisions of the ACA that have already gone into effect. The Democrats are hardly guaranteed to win the battle of ACA, but they have a shot if they make the right arguments.
Waldman goes on to note that House Republicans will have to write a budget resolution, and moreover, are virtually promising a budget showdown with the president, probably forcing a shutdown of the federal government. There's no particular reason to assume that tactic will fare any better than it did when Newt Gingrich tried it back in the '90s. But that scenario, too, will force Republicans--and attentive voters generally--to make some sheep-and-goat distinctions between government programs and services that are essential and those that are not. It's when those two judgments begin to diverge, as they undoubtedly will, that the GOP will begin to pay a high price for consciously promising an austerity budget that somehow won't upset their own voters. Campaigning on a Big Lie--Big Government is a terrible threat to your liberties and your pocketbook, but Big Government doesn't involve anything that you care about, dear voter--can cause a real boomerang when the lies have to be turned into an agenda.