In 1996, congressional Republican were fairly eager to pass meaningful legislation. Sure, there was a Democratic president, and policy accomplishments might make him look like he’s governing successfully, but GOP officials wanted to run for re-election with some record of accomplishments, too.

Take welfare reform, for example. The issue was important to Bill Clinton during the 1992 race, and he wanted to pass a reform bill before his re-election campaign, but Gingrich sent him a bill he didn’t like, and the president vetoed it — twice. Republicans made some changes and on the third try, Clinton accepted the bill. The president got a political win by fulfilling a campaign promise, and GOP leaders got a win showing they were capable of governing.

It’s hard to imagine a similar situation playing out now, in part because Republicans no longer take public policy seriously, and in part because GOP officials seem to prioritize knee-jerk opposition to President Obama above literally every other consideration. They’re no longer eager to demonstrate the capacity to pass major legislation; the goal is to deny the president an opportunity to sign major legislation. If voters perceive them as a do-nothing Congress, so be it — as long as Obama isn’t succeeding, nothing else matters.

Ezra Klein argued today we can forget about “significant cooperation on substantive issues” because of this dynamic. “Boehner simply will not cut off his party’s candidates at the knees, especially its presidential contenders, by handing Obama a major economic accomplishment,” Ezra said.

Again, notice that in 1996, House Republicans, their hatred for Clinton notwithstanding, didn’t think this way when the last Dem president was gearing up for a re-election fight.

But is Ezra right? Probably, though Jonathan Cohn’s stab at optimism resonated with me.

It’s true that few people will actually listen to [President Obama’s] speech and that many of those who do will be political junkies or political partisans who’ve already made up their minds about economic policy. But the next morning, many more people who don’t pay that much attention to politics will hear a short excerpt of the speech while eating breakfast or driving to work. And even those who don’t hear content from the speech will be aware that Obama gave it — i.e., they will get the message that Obama wants to do something to fix the economy and create jobs.

And the idea isn’t simply to give one speech. It’s to follow up the speech with appearances, radio addresses, executive orders; to coordinate these actions with the rest of the Democratic Party leadership; to rally validators from outside the party; and to do this over a lengthy period of time. The idea, in other words, is to wage an aggressive and sustained public relations campaign for new interventions into the economy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Republicans won’t care, I can hear you saying, because they’d rather beat Obama than help the country. Perhaps.

But in 2013, John Boehner wants to be Speaker again and Eric Cantor wants to be Majority Leader again. Their understanding of public policy and current events is strikingly weak, but they understand campaign politics pretty well. They know how unpopular the GOP is and they know blocking any and all jobs bills gives President Obama a chance to make a clear pitch to voters: “I tried to make the economy better, but Republicans refused to work with me.”

The goal for the White House, then, is to fight, not only for an ambitious economic plan, but to change the landscape a bit. Give the public something to fight for (a jobs bill) and something to fight against (congressional Republicans). The GOP doesn’t fear Democrats at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but it occasionally fears electoral consequences — and the prospect of Speaker Pelosi, Part II.

Sure, it’s a long shot. But what’s the alternative? Sitting on our hands and waiting for the economy to get better on its own?

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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.