At this point four years ago, congressional Republican leaders made a very careful, very deliberate decision about how to deal with an Obama White House: they wouldn't deal with an Obama White House.
As part of the party's driving ambition to undermine the Obama presidency -- and make Obama a one-term president -- John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and others gambled on an all-obstruction, all-the-time strategy. Even if the Obama administration was prepared to embrace GOP ideas, Republican leaders would accept no compromises and make no concessions. It was time, they said, for scorched-earth partisanship, not constructive policymaking.
That was then. Four years later, President Obama's name will never appear on a ballot again, and if voters are feeling frustrated, the only policymakers who'll feel the brunt are members of Congress. With that in mind, the message from GOP leaders is noticeably different.
On a conference call with House Republicans a day after the party's electoral battering last week, Speaker John A. Boehner dished out some bitter medicine, and for the first time in the 112th Congress, most members took their dose.
Their party lost, badly, Mr. Boehner said, and while Republicans would still control the House and would continue to staunchly oppose tax rate increases as Congress grapples with the impending fiscal battle, they had to avoid the nasty showdowns that marked so much of the last two years.
Members on the call, subdued and dark, murmured words of support -- even a few who had been a thorn in the speaker's side for much of this Congress.
As a practical matter, the manifestation of this attitude is unclear. If Boehner is eager to "avoid the nasty showdowns" in the next Congress, does that mean fewer government-shutdown threats? When it's time to raise the debt ceiling, will Boehner resist calls to hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage until Democrats meet non-negotiable demands? Time will tell.
But the mere fact that Boehner is signaling to his caucus that he wants less partisan warfare -- and that his caucus is grudgingly prepared to proceed accordingly -- is, at a minimum, a shift in tone. The Speaker's comments came the same week as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Wall Street Journal, "The country doesn't need a tax increase; we have a spending problem. But they control a big part of the government and they insist on taxes."
That "but" makes a big difference.