The postelection order continues to take shape. Another Senate Republican, Oregon's Gordon Smith, was defeated, taking Democrats to 55 Senate seats and further thinning the ranks of GOP moderates. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the capable House Republican whip, announced he would step aside, most likely to be replaced by his more conservative chief deputy, Virginia's Eric Cantor. After a day of will-he-or-won't-he speculation, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said he would become the president's chief of staff, and Barack Obama met the press for the first time Friday as president-elect.
The choice of Emanuel is daring and somewhat risky, but it also gives Obama the benefit of a skilled and relentless operator who understands the inner workings of both the executive branch and Congress. Emanuel is a sharp-elbowed partisan whose renowned abrasiveness has rankled some within his own party; even more, Emanuel has been a focal point of Republican ire, especially since he played an instrumental role in winning back the House for the Democrats. The Republican National Committee and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, expressed some of that enmity in statements issued Thursday. Boehner termed Emanuel's selection "an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil and govern from the center." The RNC statement was even more acid, saying that "the White House needs a chief of staff — not a chief campaigner like Emanuel."
The GOP response is worth taking to heart — the new president needs to demonstrate a willingness to reach across the aisle — but it is not entirely fair. Emanuel is undoubtedly a partisan, but with centrist instincts. In his previous White House job, he oversaw President Bill Clinton's effort to win passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement; he was a voice for pursuing issues such as welfare reform and co-authored a 2006 book, The Plan, with his former White House colleague Bruce Reed of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. The leftward precincts of the party may have more reason to be discomfited by Emanuel's selection than Republicans do. Emanuel could be an enormously effective chief of staff, playing a useful bad cop to the new president's good cop and translating Obama's political agenda into governing reality, but he will also need to temper his impatient personality to the demands of a new role.
The less-than-gracious GOP statements, and the turmoil in the House leadership ranks, underscore the choice ahead for the Republican minority: whether to try to cooperate with the new president or, with moderates an endangered species in the party, to form an unyielding opposition. We are not in the business of giving either party advice on how to tend to its electoral interests, but the public does not seem positively inclined toward political jockeying and reflexive obstructionism. Republicans should, of course, stand up for their principles, although the party, in the aftermath of its loss, will inevitably spend some time debating exactly what those are. But the country — and, we suspect, the party as well — would benefit from a sincere effort to find common ground with the new administration on some of the daunting issues facing the country in the months ahead.