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Commentary: Republicans should work with Obama toward peace and prosperity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2009 - President Barack Obama is the most gifted political leader our nation has had in at least a generation. Most Americans are eager to follow his lead, especially given the enormous size of our international and domestic challenges and after the unpopular second term of President George Bush.

Republicans no less than Democrats have stakes in the success of our country as it depends on the success of the Obama presidency, but the natural tendency of an opposition party is to see its future in light of the failures of the party in power. Especially in a time of crisis, when a president's failure would mean the nation's failure, an opposition party has the responsibility of advancing its ideas in ways that strengthen America and enhance prospects of the president's success.

The question we Republicans should answer is whether we intend to be part of the solution or part of the problem.

On the two huge challenges of our time: terror and the economy, Republicans offer important contributions that should factor into the development of public policy.

War on Terror

Republicans can provide essential balance in considering how America should respond to terror. Nearly everyone thinks that detention facilities at Guantanamo are an embarrassment, that torture is atrocious and that government should not promiscuously spy on people. At the same time, Republicans should insist that the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, that America is engaged in a war on terror and that government must have the capability to safeguard the public from attack.

A balanced approach to the war on terror means that civil liberties and public safety are not mutually exclusive. If we close Guantanamo, we cannot responsibly release into the world terrorists who - while posing serious threats - may not be subject to successful prosecution in criminal courts.

While we abhor torture and cherish privacy, success against terror will require excellent intelligence about the identity of our adversaries and the details of their plans. Republicans can play a crucial role in creating a rule of law that incorporates the dual requirements of personal liberty and public safety.

Contol of the Economy

Most Republicans join Democrats in recognizing that the current economic crisis calls for an unprecedented degree of governmental intervention in business. Conservatives who have long advocated limited government and free markets have reluctantly supported massive bailouts and government ownership stakes in corporations. A long-term danger is that measures created to meet an emergency become permanent features in the relationship between government and business. In other words, America could follow the model of Europe.

With abundant examples of corporate incompetence and financial corruption, Republicans are hard pressed in their traditional roles as champions of the private sector. Yet advocacy of limited government and relatively free markets will be essential if, in addressing the current emergency, we avoid the trap of a politically controlled economy.

The fact is that Washington lacks any special business genius whether in designing cars or picking the energy technology of the future. As they participate in creating bailouts and stimulus programs, Republicans can help develop exit strategies from those measures and help disburse business decision-making from Washington throughout the country.

Opposition with Civility

Republicans can play constructive roles in other areas as well.

To his credit, President Obama has said that we must solve the twin problems of Social Security and Medicare. At least since I entered the Senate 32 years ago, experts have told us that these entitlement programs will seriously weaken our future economy unless we fix them.

We have not acted on these warnings, because even suggesting that we do so has been politically disastrous. Members of Congress who have been willing to address these challenges have faced ruin in subsequent elections. President Obama's statement on the subject has given members of Congress from both parties an opportunity to do what is right by fashioning a bipartisan solution to a critical problem. Republicans can show a readiness to join with Democrats in a common effort to put Social Security and Medicare on sound footing.

The key to being a loyal opposition is for Republicans to focus on the real needs of the country. This means eschewing cheap shots at the party in power, and especially it means emphasizing policies over personalities.

For many years, a favorite political tactic has to use the confirmation process to unmask and embarrass people who, until their nominations by the president, have lived distinguished lives. Republican senators can help change the tone of Washington by applying a rule of reason and fairness in judging people subject to their scrutiny.

It is not reasonable to think that America's foreign policy will be affected by contributions to the Clinton library, or that our financial crisis will be more dire if the Secretary of Treasury failed to pay some payroll taxes, or that the Justice Department will be undermined by a pardon recommendation the new attorney general made eight years ago.

Republicans will have much to offer as our government addresses the very big issues that are before our country. A key to success for President Obama, the country and, I think, the Republican Party is to remain focused on those big issues.

John C. Danforth, a Republican, was a U.S. senator from Missouri from 1976-95.

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