Republicans, as I have recently argued, have a great deal more to offer the country than tax cuts. They might ask: Do we wish to see our country’s energy sector continue to grow, and to see America displace Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer? The country will answer “Yes,” and Republicans should be ready with a list of specific policies to ensure that this happens. Republicans might ask: Do we wish to create a great many more solid career opportunities for the very large share of our young people who are not headed for MBAs, law degrees, or information-technology jobs? The country will answer “Yes,” and Republicans must be ready with a solid policy agenda. Ask the country if it wants to end subsidies to politically connected businesses, and it will answer “Yes.” Be ready. Instead, Republicans have been asking if the country is ready to put everything on hold to forestall a relatively small tax hike for households with incomes approaching $400,000 and up, and the country has answered “No.” The country is wrong to want to raise taxes for reasons having to do more with envy than economics, but certain human realities have to be accounted for in politics.

As for the more difficult questions, such as whether the country will protest if the Republicans attempt to reform entitlements by changing the indexation benchmark from wages to prices — a reform that would save billions of dollars without actually cutting the current benefits of one person — the answer is not obvious, but then that is the nature of hard questions. But it will be easier for conservatives to do the hard thing if they have an agenda that emphasizes the great many relatively easy and popular proposals that conservatives can and should support. But that is going to take deft and imaginative leadership of a sort that we have not lately seen from Republican leaders. John Boehner has not been the catastrophe that many fiscal hawks accuse him of being, but it is not clear that making the best of a bad hand is the most we can or should hope for.