You only get one chance to make a first impression. Republicans had better hope that old saying isn’t entirely true. Unfortunately, Republicans in the House of Representatives booted that first opportunity with an ill-considered focus on themselves, after an election where fighting the establishment became the rallying cry in both parties. After they voted to prioritize a revamp of the Office of Congressional Ethics as part of their Day One agenda, the predictable media swarm and a public rebuke from president-elect Donald Trump forced them into an embarrassing retreat.

The issue wasn’t whether the OCE changes are defensible; they are, both intellectually and politically under other circumstances. The issue is why House Republicans put themselves first rather than their constituents. As I write in my column today at The Fiscal Times, it’s a clear demonstration that the GOP still doesn’t get the message from the 2016 cycle:

The Washington Post headlined this as “a day of chaos.” It certainly wasn’t a propitious start to the ambitious session planned by president-elect Trump and Republican leadership. The fumble left the impression that many Republicans still thought voters would accept business as usual, and perhaps even assumed that their lopsided victory at all levels in November signaled a specific embrace of the Republican Party and carte blanche to act on the agenda of its politicians.

That would be a dangerous assumption. Voters did not suddenly embrace Republicans as much as they rejected Democrats, with the GOP benefiting from the binary political system. Democrats made a similar assumption after winning sweeping victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and have paid for it ever since. Democrats failed to understand that and spent the last six years reducing their party to its worst political position since the 1920s, and possibly since Reconstruction.

Voters did not elect Republicans as much as they elected for a change – and want it to result in positive action, economic revival, a secure and strong America, and most of all greater accountability from Washington DC. Had they articulated among themselves a set of tests for proposed actions that reflected those principles, they might have avoided this debacle entirely.

If it’s any consolation, Democrats still don’t get it either. Instead of reaching out to the voters who have broadly rejected them at every level, they’re still trying to ignore them:

Several House Democrats are weighing a formal challenge to Donald Trump’s election on Friday, when Congress meets in joint session to certify Trump’s Electoral College victory.

Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Col.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) are among a group of Democrats eyeing challenges.

That’ll end well, I’m sure. It seems as if the Democrats plan to utilize every formation in the Stupid and Futile Gestures playbook in order to stay in their cocoon of denial. Far be it from me to burst their bubble.

However, someone has to shake Republicans out of their own bubble to understand the fragile opportunity they have at the moment. Their problem is that they don’t seem to have a playbook at all, whether tethered to reality or not. What Republicans need is a set of guiding principles against which to test their legislative and executive actions in accordance with the conservative-populist alliance that exists — for now. My TFT column is headlined “Seven Tests Than Can Keep Republicans from Screwing Up,” and this is the first and most important of the seven:

  1. Does it serve to bring accountability to the political establishment in Washington DC? – No other value mattered more to voters in both parties in this cycle. Donald Trump ran explicitly on a promise to “drain the swamp,” a promise he has reaffirmed after his election. Had Republicans internalized this properly, they never would have dared to make OCE changes as their Day One action item.

Be sure to read them all. They are numbered in priority order, the order of which is certainly debatable, but the principles themselves should not be. They are principles around which most constituencies on the Right and in the middle can agree, at least broadly. The point is not necessarily that everything Congress and the White House does should satisfy all seven tests, but each action should satisfy at least a few of them — and the more tests it satisfies, the better.