THE FAILURE TO NEGOTIATE…. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if, back in September, Senate Republicans embraced Max Baucus’ health care reform plan. It was a pretty industry-friendly plan, which curtailed costs, and lacked any vestige of a public option.

Had the GOP decided that was good enough, Democratic moderates, looking for a “bipartisan solution,” would have quickly said, “Deal.” House Blue Dogs would have been ecstatic. The media would have loved it — David Broder would start chiseling a statue in Baucus’ honor, and his plan would quickly have been labeled the “consensus, bipartisan” approach to reform. The momentum in support of the measure would have been considerable.

Of course, that didn’t happen, because Republicans didn’t want a deal, they wanted to kill health care reform. The final bill, if recent events are any indication, will likely be far more liberal than the deal Baucus offered the GOP three months ago.

David Frum argued this week that Republicans’ reflexive opposition to just about everything is counter-productive and self-defeating.

The furious rejectionist frenzy of the past 12 months is exacting a terrible price upon Republicans. We’re getting worse and less conservative results out of Washington than we could have negotiated, if we had negotiated.

As is, we’re betting heavily that a bad economy will collapse Democratic support without us having to lift a finger. Maybe that will happen. But existing party strategy has to be reckoned a terrible failure. Most Republicans will shrug off that news. If polls are right, rank-and-file Republicans feel little regard for the Washington party, and don’t expect much from it. But it’s the rank-and-file who are the problem here! Republican leaders do not dare try deals for fear of being branded sell-outs by a party base that wants war to the knife. So we got war. And we’re losing. Even if we gain seats in 2010, the actions of this congressional session will not be reversed. Shrink Medicare after it has expanded? Hey — we said we’d never do that.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?

That seems compelling, but I’m not sure Republicans are “losing.” The GOP is lying its ass off on health care, and Americans believe them. The GOP is rejecting science and empiricism on global warming, and not only are Americans losing interest in combating climate change, but the chances of passing a meaningful bill in the Senate are very much in doubt. The GOP still holds incomprehensible Neo-Hooverite ideas on the economy, but confidence in the party’s handling of the issue is growing.

Congressional Republicans have acted like spoiled children throughout a year of crisis — throwing tantrums, lying constantly, making nonsensical claims, offering insane ideas, embracing conspiracy theories, giving up entirely on seriousness of thought — and they’re nevertheless just about tied with the majority party on a generic congressional ballot.

It’s the underlying dilemma for reform-minded conservatives like Frum and Bruce Bartlett. After humiliating failures in 2006 and 2008, Republicans needed to readjust to the political mainstream. GOP leaders at every level refused — but the party is gaining ground anyway.

There’s no “principle that obliges [Republicans] to be stupid,” but if their stupidity is rewarded by the electorate, they’ll feel no incentive to be more sensible.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.