The hidden winner in last night's historic election may be Republican House Speaker John Boehner whose home state of Ohio put President Barack Obama over the top for a second term.
If Boehner plays his cards right he may be able to reprieve the role made famous by Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill and conservative icon Ronald Reagan back in the early 1980s when these two old fashioned Irish pols reconciled themselves to the reality they had to work together, which they did, most famously in hammering together a compromise putting Social Security on a more sustainable basis.
During Obama's stirring victory speech last night reaffirming that what makes America exceptional "are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth," the President pointedly reached out to a Republican Party that is now almost entirely middle-aged, fundamentalist and white, offering an agenda that could form the basis of a bi-partisan Grand Bargain: "reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil."
To accept the President's olive branch and invitation to become a constructive governing partner on these and other issues all Boehner needs to do is separate himself from the Tea Party intransigence that has gridlocked Washington for most of Obama's first term - an ideological rigidity that defines compromise as capitulation and sees bi-partisanship as both major parties marching in regimental lock-step with a far right conservative worldview.
New York Times writer Robert Draper captured the flavor of what Speaker Boehner has been up against in his own Republican House caucus these past two years when he recounted the conversation GOP veteran Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson had with one of these far right freshman at the height of the Tea Party-engineered debt ceiling fiasco in August 2011.
Emerson asked the new congressman to please explain to her why he and his Tea Party colleagues thought it was no big deal for the United States to default on its debt. She wanted to know because every time Emerson had tried to bring up the subject with her constituents a shouting match had ensued.
"Because we've spent way too much money," the freshman explained to the bewildered Emerson," and if default is the price we have to pay, then so be it."
You asshole! the Congresswoman thought to herself. Do you really not understand what could happen here? Emerson later told her husband when she got home to pour her a big glass of wine "because I cannot believe that I had this conversation with someone who was elected to Congress."
But don't be too hard on the Tea Party freshman. He was merely reflecting what he'd been told by his ideological superior, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who once said he'd prefer to have just 30 reliably conservative senators instead of a majority if it consisted of wishy-washy Republicans.
"I don't want to have power until we have principles," DeMint told a Tea Party crowd in front of the South Carolina State House.
For his own part, the perpetually-tanned John Boehner is far too temperamentally sluggish and intellectually dim to be a passionate ideologue about anything. And so the convincing repudiation the American people administered yesterday to what passes for mainstream Republicanism today may finally have given the heretofore hapless House Speaker the political capital he needs to put the Tea Party in its place. That way, maybe Boehner's inner deal-maker may finally have room to breathe.
Over the past two year, Speaker Boehner has been every bit as much a hostage to fortune as the rest of us after the arrival in Washington of 87 Tea Party extremists who fancied themselves on a mission from God to dismantle a freedom-crushing federal government in order to give back to the American people their constitutionally-guaranteed, severely conservative, birthright inheritance.
That giant gavel the soft-speaking Boehner held in his hand on his first weepy day as Speaker turned out to be no Big Stick at all as the Speaker found himself repeatedly humiliated by firebrand freshmen -- egged on by Jacobin connivers like Majority Leader Eric Cantor - who believed (probably rightly) their days in Congress would be numbered if they ever made the least effort to work across the aisle with Democrats.
Yet, elections have consequences and there is room here for constructive accomplishments that would be good for both the country and our two political parties -- but only so long as Republicans remembered who won the election and so confined themselves to shaping the liberal mandate Democrats have been given by the American people in more Republican-friendly ways, instead of trying to dictate terms the way Republicans have been doing ever since Barack Obama was first elected.
I can't say I am overly optimistic about the GOP's ability to reach a bargain with anyone, even after another national humiliation like the one Republicans suffered last night. Certainly not when there are conservatives out there like Michael Walsh, who writes for William F. Buckley's National Review, insisting that the objective for Mitt Romney and Republicans in 2012 was to "finish the job," to "crush them," by which he meant that the Democratic Party and "the modern Left -- the unholy spawn of '30s gangland and '60s academic Marxism -- must be forced to its knees in surrender."
It's hard to see how President Obama and the Democrats will ever be able to forge a reasonable rapprochement with Republicans who listen to people like Walsh and believe the Democratic agenda consists entirely of "revenge" - "payback time for slavery and segregation; payback for poverty; payback for foreign wars; payback for restrictive immigration laws" - wedge issues all designed to "crack the larger social structure and now, so close to realizing the ultimate expression that everything about America stinks."
It may be impossible to find common ground with such vile hatefulness. But if we can help a new conventional wisdom to congeal that Mitt Romney was done in mostly because he could not separate himself from the growing extremism within his own Republican Party, then maybe reaching out to Republicans might be worth the effort after all.