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President Obama’s recent actions to effectively exempt millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation and to issue them work permits has caused frustration among many who believe that neither the precedents nor the law support the his actions. The president’s opponents have focused on what can done in the short-term to reverse his executive orders, or at least make him pay a political price. But rather than simply reacting, conservatives should learn from their experiences with Obamacare. In the short-term, the ability of the Republican Congress to reverse the president’s executive orders or repeal Obamacare is very limited. It matters much more what President Obama’s opponents are prepared to do the next time they wield greater policymaking power.

Obama and his party took advantage of Democratic supermajorities in both houses of Congress to just barely pass his unpopular health care plan. Obama had to reverse his earlier opposition to a health insurance purchase mandate, and the hyper-partisan, rushed, dishonest, and incompetent drafting and passage of the law continue to make a bad piece of legislation even worse.

And yet many conservative critics of the law, both candidates and the rank-and-file, made mistakes in how they opposed Obamacare. Most of the 2012 cycle presidential candidates who marketed themselves as authentic conservatives (which is to say, to the right of Mitt Romney), had very shallow and brittle arguments against Obamacare.

They had studied neither Obamacare itself, nor the policies that might have replaced Obamacare. The result was that when the candidates attacked Mitt Romney’s health care law (which, like Obamacare included guaranteed issue, community rating, coverage mandates, subsidies, and a health insurance purchase mandate), Romney could easily dodge the questions. It was so easy for Romney to evade and explain away those attacks because his opponents had developed a one-liner critique of the Obamacare and Romneycare.

The most telling moment was when Romney would explain that, unlike with Obamacare, Romney didn’t have to raise taxes to fund his program. That was true because, as Romney advisor Jonathan Gruber pointed out, liberal Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy “had basically figured out a way to sort of rip off the feds for about 400 million dollars a year” in order to fund Romneycare. It shouldn’t have taken a Gruber gaffe for Romney’s opponents to figure out the funding mechanism for Romney’s health care law.

But, with the noble and notable exception of Rick Santorum, the 2012 candidates to Romney’s right were too busy practicing their angry faces to provide a sustained critique of Obamacare or offer plausible alternatives. They preferred gestural politics like Michele Bachmann boasting that she had filed the very first bill to repeal Obamacare. It should also be noted that Bachmann, who marketed herself as real conservative fighter with a “titanium spine” preferred to attack Romney’s more conservative opponents rather than the establishment favorite. The politics of gesture and cheap affiliation carried the day—right up to the point where they met the politics of cynical preparation. And by then it was too late for the 2012 cycle.

Any claims by conservatives that they share your anger over Obamacare or the president’s immigration executive orders should be met with stony silence. Their alleged feelings help nobody. If they are really angry, they will do the work of learning and explaining alternatives to President Obama’s policies.

On health care policy, candidates should not be evaluated on how quickly during their first day in office they plan to send Congress a bill to repeal Obamacare. They should be evaluated on whether they have a more market-oriented plan for giving a reasonable chance of coverage to those who now have health insurance because of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and subsidies. Any realistic plan for getting enough public support to repeal Obamacare is going to have to address this population. Plans for dealing with this population exist. Candidates who try to get away with one-liners and emotion are just using you—and they are not giving us the best chance to repeal Obamacare.

The same standards should govern the debate over immigration policy. Declarations of anger at the president are worthless. Promises to “seal the border” are worthless in themselves. We will have a better immigration policy when we have a national consensus—expressed through elections—about what that better immigration policy should look like.

Talk about the border and building trust are empty reassurance (usually given by those who just failed to enact an amnesty). There are deep divisions within the right about what a forward-looking immigration policy should look like. Should that policy increase or decrease the number of future low-skill immigrants? Are guest worker programs a good idea or a bad idea? Should any amnesty for those who are currently here illegally come before or after the U.S. has instituted mandatory employment verification and a visa tracking system? Candidates who try to slip by those questions with talk about how they share your frustrations and anxieties should be met with a civilized contempt.

We should demand more now, because we should want center-right politicians to be ready to offer an alternative. The moment will come—whether in 2016 or later. In 2000, no one could have predicted the combination of Iraq War mismanagement and financial crisis that made Obamacare possible. We can’t know when the opportunities for much better health care and immigration policy will arise. We can only do our small part to incentivize conservative politicians to be worthy of those opportunities.

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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