"Don't blame all the things that have happened to us lately on the Republicans," humorist Will Rogers once said. "They're not smart enough to have thought 'em up." That advice still rings true, especially after our recent midterm elections. Both parties need to wise up.
Democrats need to come to grips with why they lost this election; Republicans need to remember why they lost the previous two.
Presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, sounded an impressively humble note on his party's victory night. He has a lot to feel humble about. Republican approval ratings are not much higher than those of the Democrats — and President Obama's personal approvals still tend to beat them both despite his current headaches, although that's not saying much.
Victory came to Republicans because the tea party movement helped the GOP a lot more than it hurt, despite the goofiness of some of the tea partiers' endorsed candidates. (Oh, how we journalists shall miss them. Maybe they'll be back. Or maybe they'll just get their own cable television talk shows.) That leaves Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to deal with a new generation of tea party-backed members who seem to think every problem can be solved with a tax cut.
Unlike Newt Gingrich, his predecessor as House speaker in a 1994 GOP congressional takeover, Boehner is a former southern Ohio businessman and less of an ideologue than a friendly dealmaker — although you wouldn't guess it from his "Hell, no, you can't" shout-out as he dropped the Democrats' hefty health care bill on the House floor.
Fortunately, Republicans are not entirely the party of "no," even though they have played one on the floor of Congress when a major Obama-backed proposal comes up. To their everlasting credit, there are some thinking Republicans who have come up with ideas that, love 'em or hate 'em, are worth debating and even negotiating.
There's Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., top GOP budget committee member, whose "Roadmap for America's Future" points a conservative path down the rough road to reining in entitlement spending. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has a worthwhile proposal to stimulate growth through payroll tax reductions. A variety of Republican lawmakers and other conservative thinkers have come up with health care and financial reform ideas worth serious consideration.
Yet Republicans have not come together as a party around any of these ideas, as if they're afraid to acknowledge that government might actually be able to help people who are hurting — lest the tea party wrath come down on their noggins.
So even after the "shellacking," as Obama called it, that Republicans gave to Democrats on Election Night, Boehner still punted to Obama. "While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people's House," he said in his victory speech, "we must remember it is the president who sets the agenda for our government." Maybe so, but the House approves all spending bills.
Republicans need to show they can do more than bottle up the president's agenda. Otherwise, they're back to being the party of "hell no."
And a chastened Obama can use this opportunity to triangulate, as Bill Clinton did, turning to the political center and winning for himself a landslide re-election after Gingrich's excesses brought a government shutdown.
Having watched Obama's years as an Illinois state senator, I have no doubt that he can forge productive agreements across party and cultural lines, when he puts his mind to it.
That doesn't mean he should go overboard in heeding the calls of Boehner and McConnell to "change course." Republicans didn't change course after their 2006 and 2008 losses. When Ronald Reagan suffered losses in the 1982 midterm, during another recession, he declared "Stay the course" — and he did. So should Obama.
His core supporters are still looking for change they can believe in. Their lagging enthusiasm shows the change Obama has brought has not been appreciated enough, especially when he seems, as he did on a recent "Daily Show" appearance, to be amending his campaign slogan to, "Yes, we can, but. . . ."
The change all Americans would like to see is both parties working together to win battles against the nation's problems, not just against each other. We're still waiting.