We don't often see politicians celebrate a loss. But when your party happens to be on the outs with voters, you claim your victories wherever they can find them.
In that spirit House Republicans were slapping at least mid-fives with each other, if not high-fives, over their unanimous vote against President Obama's economic stimulus package, which they knew was going to pass anyway.
They were not happy to lose the vote but delighted that they had been able to stay together as they went down swinging, denying Obama's package a single Republican vote.
That was a blow to Obama's charm offensive, his unbridled wooing of Republican support through meetings, cocktail parties and a salute to his former opponent Sen. John McCain. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and others praised the friendliness and fruitfulness of their talks with Obama before they voted against him anyway.
Conservative talk show hosts were delighted, I am sure. But conservative talk show hosts don't have to run for office
For example, despite their principled objections to big spending in the $819 billion stimulus bill that the House sent to the Senate, I wonder how many of the Republican refuseniks will take another principled position: returning to Washington the big money that stimulus legislation is expected to send to their districts.
Sure, the bill is expensive, but as an effort to buy our way out of recession, its approach is largely a continuation of the recovery package that the recently departed President Bush initiated. The party of fiscal conservatism would be more believable had its members in Congress not bit their tongues in grim silence quite so often through Bush's spendthrift policies. Now free to hammer a Democratic president again, the party of fiscal prudence sounds like a hive of resentful obstructionists.
In the long run, Republicans need to do more than oppose whatever Democrats propose. Savvy leaders recognize when the public mood has shifted and take smart steps to get in front of it. Democrats with long memories should know. Presidential nominee Walter Mondale failed a similar challenge in 1984. Voters had shifted to the right more than he realized or he never would have promised in his acceptance speech to raise their taxes. We have not since heard the likes of such candor from either party, especially when they were raising our taxes.
As today's Republican leaders deal with a similar public mood swing back to the left, one detects a similar Mondale-style tone-deafness. Or maybe it's just shellshock.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, now the country's top-ranking Republican, warned that the Grand Old Party "seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one."
"In politics, there's a name for a regional party," the Kentucky Republican said last week in a speech before party leaders launched a national meeting. "It's called a minority party. And I didn't sign up to be a member of a regional party."
You can walk from Canada to Mexico and from Maine to Arizona without ever leaving a state with a Democratic governor," said McConnell. Nor does the party have any senators on the West Coast or from North Carolina to New Hamphire on the East Coast.
More bad news for the GOP comes in a new Gallup Poll. It found voters now consider themselves Democrats rather than Republicans by a record margin of 12 percentage points.
And, counting independents who say they lean toward one party or the other, Gallup found that only five of the 50 U.S. states contained more self-identified Republicans than Democrats.
That can change and probably will someday. Political pendulums swing back and forth in our democracy. That's a good thing. It keeps politicians on their toes. But Republicans can ill afford to wait for Democrats to trip over themselves to bring the next swing back their way.
McConnell blamed much of the party's woes on Bush, which is a widely held belief, and on poor salesmanship. "Too often we've let others define us," he said, especially on issues like immigration, the environment and the family, "And the image they've painted isn't very pretty."
If that sounds familiar, it's a lot like the image under which Democrats labored in the Reagan '80s as the party of "limousine liberals" and "acid, amnesty and abortion." It took more than a decade for the party to get its grove back with Bill Clinton and more recently with Obama's victory.
Now it is Republicans who need to upgrade their image. They can begin by standing together behind something more helpful than the audacity of "nope."