During the 2012 election, conservatives warned if President Obama were reelected taxes would rise, spending would increase, and it would be impossible to pass genuine entitlement reform. They were right. But now that the election is over, a number of conservatives are arguing that if only House Republicans hold firm, they can force Obama to cave and give them what they want.

Hugh Hewitt is urging Republicans to go over the “fiscal cliff” to negotiate a better deal in the new year. Earlier this month, Marc Thiessen argued that if Republicans stand their ground, they will eventually be able to enact real tax and entitlement reform. Maybe they should get Obama to appoint Federalist Society-style judges while they’re at it.

In seriousness, if all it takes to enact a conservative agenda is to hold one chamber of Congress, then why did conservative activists work so hard for Republicans to win control of the Senate? Why did they spill so much sweat in an effort to defeat Obama, even though it meant supporting Mitt Romney?

It’s important to draw a distinction between what legitimately can be seen as a GOP cave and what Republicans can realistically be expected to accomplish in an Obama second term by holding firm. Generally speaking, Republicans have the power to reduce the amount of bad stuff that can happen, but lack the ability make good stuff happen. In other words, they can block another major new entitlement from being passed, they can prevent the passage of pro-union/anti-worker “card check” legislation, they can withstand a push for intrusive gun control measures, and so on. But they aren’t going to pass pro-growth tax reform or fundamental entitlement reform, or force serious spending cuts. Obama and Harry Reid will never let that happen.

Conservatives should view current “fiscal cliff” negotiations as a triage operation. The unique circumstances are that there will be $4.5 trillion in tax hikes on January 1 if new legislation is not passed. I wouldn’t adopt the spin that voting to maintain rates on income below $1 million constitutes a tax cut. That said, there’s a clear distinction between voting to limit the damage to the economy by as much as possible under these circumstances, and outright voting for a new tax increase. If it weren’t for this special case, and it were just a matter of Republicans chasing illusory spending cuts and entitlement reform by giving in to more and more new taxes that wouldn’t otherwise be enacted, it would be a different argument.

As I wrote in column today, “Conservatives should acknowledge that some sort of compromise is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean they have to swallow anything that Boehner cooks up.” So, by all means, conservatives should push for Republicans to get the best deal possible. (Or, more accurately, the least bad deal possible.) Conservatives just have to recognize – as they did during the election – that there’s no way they’ll get anywhere near what they want with Obama as president and Democrats in control of the Senate.