GOP says it can do better, but how, exactly?

No matter how well Republicans do at the polls Tuesday — and my hunch is they won’t do as well as they hope — the GOP won’t be able to claim any kind of mandate. That’s because they have refused to articulate any vision for governing.

I do not celebrate this failure. I’ve always believed the nation’s interest is best served by competition in the marketplace of ideas. An innovative, forward-looking conservative platform would force those of us who call ourselves progressives to update and sharpen our own thinking.

Sadly, this year’s campaign has been dull and disheartening. It is a testament to the cynicism of our times that the failure of most candidates to say anything meaningful is intentional. The near-universal message isn’t “vote for me.” It’s “vote against my opponent.”

Actually, that’s not quite accurate. The dominant Republican message is an exhortation to vote against someone who’s not on any ballot: President Obama.

There’s nothing new or dishonorable about running against the policies of an unpopular president. But Republicans aren’t actually running against Obama’s policies in any meaningful way. Instead, they are conducting a campaign of atmospherics. Be afraid, they tell voters. Be unhappy. Be angry.

For the activist far right — already brimming with fear, anxiety and ire to spare — GOP candidates promise to obliterate Obama’s most significant achievement, the Affordable Care Act. This pledge has always been shamefully dishonest. Even if Republicans capture the Senate and manage to pass one of the umpteen House bills repealing all or part of Obamacare, the president will simply veto the measure. Do even the most fervent right-wingers believe Obama will ever, under any circumstances, sign legislation doing away with landmark reforms that bear his name?

Republicans talk about “repeal and replace” but feel no obligation to elaborate on the “replace” part. If they were being honest, they would admit that the need to keep the consumer-friendly parts of Obamacare — especially the provision forbidding insurance companies to deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions — would require them to enact a program that would be virtually identical, although it would surely have a different name. Maybe they’d call it “Not Obamacare.”

What else do Republicans say they would do? Nothing, really, that you can put your finger on.

They make much of the menace presented by the Islamic State and blame Obama for the jihadist group’s conquest of territory in Iraq and Syria. But what do they propose to do differently? Does anybody know?

If there is a Republican solution to the upheaval in the Middle East, we ought to know about it because Congress should have debated a measure authorizing the use of U.S. military force against the Islamic State. Instead, both houses chose to duck their constitutional responsibility. It’s much easier to complain that Obama is doing everything wrong than to take a stand on the most solemn question our elected officials can possibly face: whether to go to war.

Incredibly, Republicans have even tried to politicize the response to the Ebola outbreak. This just in: Viruses do not care one whit about party affiliation, with the possible exception of tea party fever.

I’ve noted in the past that critics yelling “stop the flights” must be unaware that there are no direct flights from the affected countries to the United States. Experts have noted that travel bans and forced quarantines will disproportionately affect returning health workers — and if they are imposed in an uninformed, bullying manner, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attempted to do with nurse Kaci Hickox, they can make it more difficult to contain the epidemic at its source, which is the only way Americans can be safe in the long run.

During Obama’s time in office, unemployment has fallen dramatically, millions of jobs have been created and the economy is growing. What do Republicans have to say about this record? Instead of acknowledging the obvious — and perhaps explaining how they would build on the president’s success — they change the subject. “We can do better,” they claim, without making the slightest effort to explain how.

I wish I could say that Democrats have taken the high road by presenting their own fresh ideas. I can’t. Mostly, they threaten voters with scary descriptions of what Republicans would do on social and economic issues if given more power.

We’re being asked to vote out of resentment and grim duty. So much for what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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