The Republicans who took over the House and made significant gains in the Senate are already playing a chancy game with their power. Their plans to spend the first part of this congressional session trying to undo President Obama's agenda suggest both a misreading of the public temperature and an unhealthy willingness to value politics over obvious national interest. They should take a deep breath before proceeding.
Consider just two items from the Republicans' suicide list: They say they want to repeal last year's health reform plan and they want to block funding for a new food safety law. Either they aren't paying attention or they aren't serious. Both could be true.
Consider health reform. No credible person denied in the years leading up to this bill that our health care system was broken. We pay more than any other Western country for health care -- far more, in fact -- for results that are only mediocre. Costs are rising so quickly that increasing numbers of employers are looking to eliminate the benefit, or pass along costs that gobble up pay raises. Millions of Americans lacked insurance, causing them to go without health care or, in many cases, to show up in hospital emergency rooms.
It was a wreck of a system. It needed fixing. How well Obama and the Democratic Congress accomplished that is a matter of debate. We think that, in large measure, they missed the boat, because their approach did too little to control costs. Without that component, reform is liable to fail.
But that doesn't mean going back to a broken system, which is what the Republicans are proposing. They talk about "reform and replace," but as was the case last year when they did nothing to improve this bill -- wanting only to obstruct it -- they have had nothing to say about fixing an urgent national problem.
That's leadership? Why aren't they proposing a system to fix health care? Here's why: That takes work. Not only is it much easier to bellow "Repeal!," but it also plays well to the far-right elements that wag the Republican dog. Fixing health care -- which means acknowledging a legitimate government role -- is much riskier. It's also much more responsible, but never mind.
As to food safety, only on Tuesday did Obama sign a $1.4 billion overhaul of the nation's food safety system, but Republicans are already talking about withholding funding. The old system, such as it was, had been in place since the 1930s. Techniques have changed. Standards have risen. And, more to the point, people have fallen ill. Several deadly outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning have occurred in the past few years in peanuts, eggs and produce.
The bill passed with overwhelming support in Congress and from the food industry, so the chances of starving it of funding seem unlikely. But the same forces are at work as in the health care bill: What is important is placating the far right, even if that means returning to a dysfunctional health care system or exposing Americans to tainted food.
There is lots more, too. Republicans also want to undo the financial reforms that Congress approved in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression -- a crisis that was brought on in large part by the lack of regulations to which many in the GOP would now like to return.
Republicans may feel boxed in. The tea party-types who are the psychological rulers of the Republican roost care nothing for details; they want only to cut spending, and the party at least has to pretend to pay attention.
But Americans didn't vote last year for a return to the anti-regulatory recklessness of the Bush years. They want a government that deals with real problems in a responsible way. Congressional Republicans aren't starting out on that foot. If they continue, they may live to regret the day they sat down to tea.