Dana Milbank
Opinion writer September 23, 2011

It appeared, at first glance, as if Eric Cantor’s Twitter account had been hacked — by a really nice guy.

In recent days, the extravagantly combative GOP House majority leader has been tweeting a veritable sampler box of bipartisan bonbons.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Sept. 21: “People don’t expect Republicans and Democrats to agree on everything, but they do expect us to overcome our differences and work together.”

Sept. 16: “Good people can have honest disagreements without having their morals or commitment to country being called into question.”

Sept. 13: “We need to work together towards the solutions that will meet the challenges facing our country today.”

Sept. 12: “Let’s try and lower the volume of the rancor in Washington, and focus on what we can do together to grow this economy and create jobs.”

And that is just a taste.

But this was no case of malicious (or, in this instance, magnanimous) hacking. After one of the ugliest summers political Washington has ever seen, Republicans, looking at poll numbers showing voters are even angrier with them than they are with President Obama, have decided to try the Mr. Nice Guy approach, in word and (occasional) deed.

They agreed to pass legislation keeping the Federal Aviation Administration going, abandoning the contentious provisions that led to this summer’s partial shutdown of the agency. They avoided another confrontation by extending highway spending without repealing the federal gas tax, a Tea Party priority. On Thursday, Senate Republicans yielded to President Obama’s demands and passed a worker-assistance bill that clears the way for enacting new trade agreements.

None of this means we’ve entered some new era of harmony in the capital; Republicans remain unswervingly opposed to any new taxes to reduce debt. And GOP leaders can push their rank-and-file only so far.

After conservatives on Wednesday defeated their leaders’ legislation that would keep the government running for the next two months, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attempted to negotiate with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in hopes of securing Democratic votes for the spending bill. But Boehner lost his nerve and decided instead to appease the recalcitrant conservatives.

Still, the shift in tone shows that Republicans have decided to pick their battles — a sensible response to the revulsion Americans felt watching this summer’s brinkmanship over the debt limit.

The Republicans seem to be heeding the advice of strategists such as Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster who, in a widely read memo earlier this month, warned that the debt standoff hurt consumer confidence much like the Iranian hostage crisis, the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Hurricane Katrina.

“The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress,” McInturff wrote. He added that “this sharp a drop in consumer confidence is a direct consequence of the lack of confidence in our political system and its leaders.”

Fearing that voters will probably punish all incumbents — not just Obama — Republicans have softened their style in September, even as Obama has hardened his. “There is a recognition on the Hill that people are frustrated with Washington and want some results,” acknowledged Cantor’s spokesman, Brad Dayspring.

The Republicans’ experiment in conciliation has been aided by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has brought up issues — patents, trade and transportation — that had bipartisan support from the start. But Democrats also claim some vindication in the new approach. As one Democratic leadership aide put it: “They’re picking their shots better so they don’t come across as complete [expletives].”

The question is: How much substance comes with that recalibration? After Obama’s address to Congress on job creation, Boehner replied with the conciliatory message that “it is our desire to work with you to find common ground.”

On the morning after his House conservatives defeated the legislation to keep the government running, Boehner went to the microphones to assure Americans: “Listen, there’s no threat of government shutdown. Let’s just get this out there.”

Privately, Democrats believe that, too. And though Obama’s jobs bill has no chance of passage (even many Democrats object to its tax increases), chances are good that Republicans will agree to extend the payroll tax cut and a tax credit for hiring wounded veterans.

“We want to join with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, to find areas where we agree, to make sure the American economy succeeds,” Cantor announced via Twitter.

Well said. But how much will Republicans practice what they tweet?

danamilbank@washpost.com