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The GOP's Dirty War

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The GOP's resurrection has not come on the strength of transformative ideas that can actually solve the nation's problems: Republicans continue to peddle warmed-over Bush — from bankruptcy-inducing tax cuts to the privatization of Social Security. Instead, it has been achieved through what one party strategist admits is "tactical small-ball." The GOP game is as simple as it is hypocritical. First: Reject every Democratic proposal — including some of the exact same initiatives that Republicans championed under Bush — while branding the consensus-seeking Obama as a radical leftist. Second: Stoke populist fury over exploding deficits, even though they're the fallout of eight catastrophic years of Republican rule. (President Bush inherited a projected surplus of $5.6 trillion and left behind a forecasted deficit of $3 trillion.) Three: Promise to fix what's wrong with Washington — despite having waged an all-out war to make government appear as broken as possible.

It has come to this: The unreconstructed party of Jack Abramoff and Dick Cheney is now making the cynical bet that it can win a "change election" of its own this year by drafting a new "Contract With America," focused on initiatives for "good governance" and accountability. And come November, that bet might just pay off. "Does the Republican Party lack a clear leader? Absolutely. Do they lack a positive message? Of course. Do their demographics suck? Yeah," says Cook. "But in a midterm election, none of that matters. Because midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power. And to throw one side out, you've got to throw the other side back in."

The stage for the GOP's devolution into the Party of No was set by a power struggle in January 2009 between House Minority Leader John Boehner and insurgent minority whip Eric Cantor. Boehner, a 10-term Republican from Ohio who took part in Newt Gingrich's insurrection against Bill Clinton, had angered his party's right-wing base by seeking common ground with Democrats over the TARP bailout. "Boehner's leadership position was in jeopardy," recalls Republican strategist Ed Rollins. "Some of the hardcore conservatives in the caucus thought he was too much of a compromiser." That opened the door for the more hardline Cantor to seize Boehner's power, if not his title — a reality that President Obama himself recognized by singling out the House whip as his negotiating partner during a "fiscal-responsibility summit" with GOP leaders. "I'm a glutton for punishment," Obama joked. "I'm gonna keep talking to Eric Cantor. Sooner or later, he's gonna say, 'Boy, Obama had a good idea.'"

Don't hold your breath. Under Cantor's leadership, House Republicans have pursued a strategy of blanket obstructionism. In addition to stonewalling health care, climate legislation and Wall Street regulation, they have repeatedly voted against the conservative principles they profess to uphold. They lined up unanimously against the stimulus package, even though it included the largest tax cut in history. In February, they tried to block pay-as-you-go budget rules — long a goal of deficit hawks — that would force the government to make spending cuts to pay for any new federal initiatives. And Republicans in the Senate rejected Obama's efforts to create a bipartisan deficit commission — even though it was virtually identical to a plan introduced under Bush. The knee-jerk partisanship has reached absurd heights. Despite railing against Obama's "jobless recovery," not a single Republican voted for the $154 billion jobs package the House passed in December.

At heart, the Republican obstructionism is not only hypocritical, it's perversely cynical. Blocking the president, after all, will only pay political dividends if the country continues to fall apart. The GOP's political thinking, Cook says, is simple: "If President Obama and Democrats do well, we Republicans are screwed. But if they screw up, then we're going to be standing there ready to be the beneficiary." What's most surprising is that Republicans in the Senate have gone along with the just-say-no strategy laid out by Cantor. "Historically, Republicans have been unable to act as a true Senate opposition party," says Rollins, "because there have always been some moderates willing to make deals with Democrats."

Obama was counting on that history as a linchpin of his legislative strategy. In his administration's first days, he persuaded senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — GOP moderates who represent Maine, which voted for Obama by a margin of 58-40 — to cross the aisle and vote for his stimulus plan. Then, in what appeared to be the ultimate sign of the GOP's death spiral, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania unexpectedly switched parties, giving the administration a filibuster-proof supermajority.

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