WASHINGTON — It is time, Jim DeMint told his fellow conservatives, to come up with a program beyond opposing everything President Obama does.
"It's not sufficient for conservatives to run against agendas; they must advance ideas," the head of the Heritage Foundation advised an audience at his think tank Monday morning. "A mandate to lead without a plan, without a proposal, without original legislation, is no mandate at all."
And so Heritage Action, the group's political wing, convened a Conservative Policy Summit to "show Americans what a bold, forward-looking, winning conservative reform agenda looks like."
But conference organizers must have misread "bold" as "old," because the proposals they assembled have been collecting dust for years:
They would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from means-tested programs, including Pell grants, school lunches, Medicaid and food stamps.
They would impose a work requirement on food-stamp recipients and perhaps a drug-test requirement on all who receive any form of welfare.
They would open up the outer continental shelf, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and more federal lands to oil drilling, and they would curtail medical-malpractice lawsuits.
They would expand private-school vouchers and introduce Medicaid vouchers, while giving bigger tax breaks for health care spending — as long as insurance plans don't cover abortion.
They would abolish Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and cut the federal gas tax by 80 percent, leaving it to the states to fund roads and infrastructure.
They would repeal an 83-year-old law that requires the federal government to pay prevailing wages and they would look into cutting the minimum wage to $5 an hour in some places.
Oh, and they're backing two more bills that would repeal Obamacare.
DeMint acknowledged the obvious: "Some of the ideas have been introduced before." But Heritage chose this slate of issues — and not, say, entitlement reform — because "the ideas we're talking about unite people."
Unite them in a partisan melee, maybe. Actually, unifying ideas are out there, such as the bipartisan immigration reform that sailed through the Senate. Even DeMint says he wants immigration reform but not now, because he doesn't trust Obama. "Frankly, this is just not a good time to do it," he said. "With this president, what he's done with Obamacare ... to give the president the authority that would come with this giant amnesty bill just does not make sense."
The upshot from the conservative confab: They are content to have the GOP be the party of "no" at least for the rest of the year (while the Senate remains in Democratic hands) and, really, for the remaining three years of Obama's term. For all the talk of bold ideas, "right now there is not a conducive environment in Washington, D.C., to advance a bold agenda," Michael Needham, Heritage Action's chief, told the gathering. "The process of starting that process is what we're here to do now."
For now, the process still seems to be guided by an antipathy toward anything Obama supports. The first session of the day was a presentation by Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., about legislation that would severely restrict the National Security Agency by requiring search warrants for any electronic communications. That's a principled libertarian position but Heritage was on the opposite side of the issue when President George W. Bush was pursuing warrantless wiretapping.
Heritage's position is important because the group often shapes Republican policy. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaking to the gathering about his welfare bill, said Heritage is "doing all the work. I just happen to get the privilege of introducing the bill." And that's true "not only on this, but on all kinds of conservative issues," he said.
But Heritage and conservative lawmakers face a conundrum. They are aware that "Americans need to know what we stand for," as DeMint put it, and "sometimes it's too easy to caricature conservatives as people who are more interested in stopping bad legislation than promoting good legislation."
Hence, the policy summit's muddled message. The discussion ranged from marijuana to Harry Reid's telephone operator, from the "vilification of wealthy people" to the need for a "massive weenie roast" of Obamacare regulations.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) attempted a weather joke. "It's so cold I actually saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets ..."
And Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) shared entirely too much information. "I have been fixed. My wife has been fixed," he said. "If we thought we had to raise another kid now, we would jump off the Capitol."
Well, that is a bold idea.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.