Can the Republicans in Congress become the loyal opposition?
In Barack Obama's first term, they had that opposing bit down to a science.
The loyalty part, not so much.
The country sorely needs an opposition that provides a useful, fiscally sound counterpoint to Democrats' ideas, while rising above naked partisanship and blind ideology.
It does not need an opposition that declares its prime directive to be making the president fail, that indulges toxic falsehoods aimed at delegitimizing him, that won't even vote for its own ideas if they arrive in a package wrapped by him.
Give Barack Obama truth serum, and he'd say he'd love to find some fiscally tough-minded, but willing-to-compromise Republicans with whom he could deal. Some liberals are now toying with the idea of just letting the nation's finances hurtle off the "fiscal cliff" that this ineffectual Congress manufactured for itself. I doubt Obama wants to risk the nation's fragile economic growth in that way.
Nonsensical Tea Party rhetoric aside, Obama is a pragmatic centrist who would like some help fending off spendthrift nonsense from his left flank.
Obama signals more willingness to make room for GOP ideas than most liberals would. It's always good to keep at the table people who worry about government overreaching and getting sloppy. But, to reach a sensible deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, GOP leaders will have to dismount some ideological hobbyhorses. Which ones?
First, the false notion that the deficit caused the economy to collapse. Deficits are a huge long-term problem, but they are not why the economy flat-lined. That happened largely because deregulation allowed bankers to get drunk on risk like frat pledges at a kegger.
Deficits are also not the leading reason the recovery is slow. In more normal times, federal deficits drive up the cost of borrowing and fuel inflation. But these aren't normal times. Inflation and interest rates remain very low.
It isn't the cost of capital that's keeping corporations from investing and hiring more. It's low demand, plus uncertainty about where things are headed.
I know it's a tricky concept, but here's the deal: To stimulate economic demand and grease investment, you need some deficit spending now. (Of course, if you raise some tax revenue to help finance the spending, you'll add less to the deficit).
The bet is that in the long run, a perked-up economy, throwing off tax revenue painlessly, will do more to tame deficits than severe fiscal austerity would.
This does not for a second gainsay the need to get Medicare costs under control; that's just not Job One at the moment. Countering a double-dip recession is.
Yes, you can find economists who will dispute what I just said. They might fill a dugout by a sandlot baseball field. But the economists who mostly agree would cover every blade of grass on that field.
The second hobbyhorse Republicans need to shelve is the notion that cutting marginal rates for the rich stimulates the economy. Both the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office recently released reports showing such tax cuts historically ahve done little to produce job growth.
Congress should start heeding the expert advice it pays for - not to mention the will of an electorate that just gave the GOP's tax ideology a shellacking at the polls.
Congress has plenty of smart Republicans who know how to compromise. Their leaders - petrified by the Tea Party activists - just haven't let them.
A few of those wiser Republicans represent this region, stalwarts of that dying breed, the moderate Republican. The nation would be well-served if they rose to bigger roles in the next Congress.