WASHINGTON – As new challenges such as the latest Arab-Israeli conflict intrude on President-elect Obama’s agenda for change at home, the Republican Party seems bent on digging in for a return to its old pre-Reagan, pre-Bush obstructionist role.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House counterpart John Boehner have already telegraphed their intent to put whatever brakes they can on the huge Obama economic stimulus train hurdling down the track for quick congressional approval.

While Obama aims to take advantage of public support for emergency action to deal with the domestic financial and economic crises, McConnell the other day raised a caution flag about reckless haste.

“As of right now,” he said with justification, “Americans are left with more questions than answers about this unprecedented government spending, and I believe the taxpayers deserve to know a lot more about where it will be spent before we consider passing it.”

In so saying, McConnell recognizes the public groundswell against the immense bailout of financial giants who perpetrated the crisis and of the overreaching American auto industry. Boehner chipped in with concern about “more pork-barrel spending that does nothing but give taxpayers’ money to special interests and campaign contributors.”

These are valid arguments for careful examination of the Obama stimulus package still in the making. At the same time, they provide cover for an ideological stand against what doctrinaire free-market Republicans in Congress take glee in labeling “socialism” and “nationalization.”

They raised the same baleful lament just weeks ago in refusing to support their beleaguered lame-duck president’s compromise on a congressional bailout for the Detroit automakers. In doing so, the Republicans forced President Bush to override them by diverting billions from already approved bailout money to the carmakers.

As the Obama administration is poised to take office on Jan. 20, more than “reckless spending” and fear of “socialism” drives the Republican leaders’ opposition. They rightly recognize that the president-elect intends to seize the economic crisis not only to address the short-term financial and economic crises, but also to pursue long-term policy and ideological objectives of his own.

Obama’s plan to combat unemployment with long-neglected infrastructure repair, environmental and other public projects brings GOP shudders of a New Deal reborn, with increasing governmental involvement clogging the wheels of unfettered capitalism.

Beyond the Republican congressional leadership, others in the party are heading for the pilothouse of the Titanic to seize control of the ship. An open competition is under way for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, where a portion of the party leadership will rest absent a Republican president for the first time in eight years.

Bush’s critics within the party have been planning a screening of challengers to his man, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, seeking re-election. They include former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and Chip Saltsman, the presidential campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Saltsman has drawn both fire and praise within the GOP for circulating a dreadful parody of “Puff the Magic Dragon” called “Barack the Magic Negro.” Also, according to the Washington Times, a resolution is to be introduced at the approaching RNC meeting sharply criticizing Bush and the party’s congressional leaders for the bailouts to the automakers.

All this reflects an air of panic circulating through a party that not only has lost the White House but also sees the undermining of its core ideological premises – free markets, unregulated entrepreneurship and small and unobtrusive government.

Meanwhile, the latest Arab-Israeli conflict is yet another distraction demanding Obama’s attention as he tries to focus on his ambitious domestic agenda. While it’s true, as he repeatedly says, there “can be only one president at a time,” he inevitably must start weighing the problem soon to be on his plate.

The financial crisis at home had already obliged the president-elect to elevate it as his prime action priority upon taking office, shunting aside for the time being his earliest presidential campaign imperative of withdrawing American forces from Iraq and ending the war there.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist.

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