The GOP's Dirty War

How Republicans have risen from the dead by distorting Obama's agenda and shutting down the government

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Only a year ago, the Republican Party had been given up for dead. Top GOP strategists despaired that their party — decimated by two consecutive bloodbath elections — was leaderless, dominated by Southern conservatives and lurching rightward into irrelevance. "The Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned his colleagues. "In politics, there's a name for a regional party: It's called a minority party."

Roundtable: The GOP Victory — and Obama's Next Steps

As the embittered remains of the GOP caucus locked arms against President Obama and a stimulus plan designed to put Americans back to work, the Party of No seemed no match for Yes We Can. Stuart Rothenberg, one of the Beltway's top handicappers, derided as "lunacy" the boast last April by Rep. Eric Cantor — architect of the Republican strategy of obstruction — that the GOP would soon return to power. "The chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero," Rothenberg declared. "Not 'close to zero.' Not 'slight' or 'small.' Zero."

This article appeared in the March 18, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

What a difference a year makes: Visions of a generation of Democratic dominance have been eclipsed by a brutal economy and the party's internal gridlock. Despite the $787 billion stimulus, unemployment remains stuck in double digits. Health care reform — Obama's centerpiece legislation — has jumped the rails, and every day spent seeking to get it back on track is a day not focused on the economy, stupid. "Barack Obama spent seven months talking about something other than the most important issue to voters: jobs and wages," says party strategist Simon Rosenberg. "Democrats left the door open for the Republicans."

The Truth About the Tea Party

As a result, the GOP is poised to take back the House in November. There are 59 congressional seats in play, and 53 of them belong to Democrats. "We are seeing 28 to 38 Democratic losses, and it's getting worse," says Charlie Cook, a top political forecaster. "Right now the trajectory is going over 40" — the number of GOP pickups required to flip the House. Even in the Senate, all bets are off following the election of Tea Party darling Scott Brown in Massachusetts and the unexpected retirements of red-state Democrats Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Evan Bayh of Indiana. "Democrats are demoralized, and independents think we're incapable of governing," says Markos Moulitsas, founder of the progressive political forum DailyKos. "We're going to get punished."

 

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.

 

But in a counterintuitive twist, Specter's defection actually ended up benefiting Republicans. With Democrats firmly in control of the Senate, moderates like Snowe and Collins had few incentives to cooperate with the president, knowing they would no longer be blamed by voters if his agenda failed. Worse, Obama further alienated them during the health care debate by refusing to explicitly back any of the myriad bills up for consideration. "The White House kept saying, 'We're going to be happy with whatever ends up coming our way,'" says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a former top Senate staffer. "That's not going to work with people who are going to be walking the plank with you. I know that was the case for Snowe. There was no reason to leave herself politically vulnerable until Democrats were able to pull all of their votes together."

Despite having a supermajority in his back pocket, the president continued to seek bipartisan support for health care reform. "Obama thought bipartisanship would be a way to convince independent voters to keep faith in him," says Clemons. "But Republicans in Congress read it as weakness." Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Chuck Grassley of Iowa took advantage of Obama's stance by making a show of working with Democrats to reach a compromise — a process that tied up the Senate Finance Committee for months — only to reveal that their true motivation had been to delay passage of the bill. Grassley, who last June hailed what he called "a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates," used the president's health care summit in February as an opportunity to rail against "unconstitutional" mandates. A week earlier, Enzi boasted to a group of businessmen, "If I hadn't been a part of the debate, you would already have universal health care."

The holy grail in any election is winning the support of the one-third of the electorate that considers itself independent. During the Clinton era, the GOP strategy was to sway these voters by making character attacks on the president — a mistake that cost Republicans five seats in the House during the impeachment battle of 1998 and ultimately led to Newt Gingrich being stripped of his speakership. So the current GOP leadership has taken the focus off Obama himself, using inflammatory language like "death panels" and "government takeover" to misleadingly brand his policies as extreme leftist. "Why would you get into a fight with Obama," asks Grover Norquist, one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement, "when you can get into a fight with his spending, with the bailouts, with the health care takeover, with the taxes on energy?"

Obama's decision to take a hands-off approach to Congress also enabled Republicans to shift the focus from a popular president to less-loved Democrats. "It's Reid and Pelosi's stimulus package, Reid and Pelosi's health care bill, Reid and Pelosi's taxes on energy," says Norquist. If Democratic policies were a martini, he says, "Obama is the vermouth — he's barely there."

With the president refusing to direct his own legislation, Congress yielded to its worst instincts. House Democrats loaded up early versions of the stimulus package with a laundry list of funding for pet projects, from hybrid cars to the National Endowment for the Arts, enabling Republicans to paint the plan as pork-barrel politics. And to pass health care reform in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid was forced to resort to what one Democratic insider calls "some of the whoriest deals that Washington has ever seen," handing over $300 million in Medicaid funding for Louisiana to secure the vote of Sen. Mary Landrieu, and another $100 million for Nebraska to get Sen. Ben Nelson on board.

"Obama wasn't hammering Democrats to behave with individual interventions," says an insider close to the negotiations. "He also wasn't working very hard to create fissures and fractures in the Republican Party at the level that should be possible." Rather than twisting arms like LBJ, the president and his supposed all-star team of advisers, anchored by Rahm Emanuel, came across like a bunch of rookies. "It's bizarre that Obama could be so politically weak that Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman could kick the White House around," says Clemons, "rather than the White House kicking them around."

Republicans have taken advantage of the infighting by using the Senate's baroque parliamentary rules to throw down as many procedural impediments to legislation as possible. Directing the obstructionism is McConnell, the Senate minority leader. A jowly Kentuckian renowned for his skill at inserting pork projects into legislation, McConnell spearheaded the opposition to campaign finance reform that ended in the recent Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate spending in American elections. "McConnell has always been the tactician," says Rollins. "He knows how to tie up the Senate." In a dramatic break from precedent, McConnell has subjected even the most routine Senate business to the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster — a move traditionally used only in dire policy disputes. McConnell began his obstructionism after Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007, forcing a record 139 "cloture" votes to defeat the filibuster — more than double the 68 cloture votes in the previous Congress. The Senate is now on track to eclipse even that record, with Republicans forcing more filibuster votes last year alone than the Senate cast in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s combined. "I've never seen the Constitution stood on its head, as they've done," Vice President Biden said in January. "This is the first time every single solitary decision has required 60 senators."

 

Republicans are using the filibuster not only to delay legislation they genuinely oppose, but as part of a broader strategy to stall Democrats on other initiatives. Last fall, GOP leaders forced Democrats to overcome a pair of filibusters to extend unemployment benefits. "There was no opposition to the bill," observed Sen. Bayh, who noted that the measure passed by a margin of 98-0. "But some senators saw political advantage in drawing out debate, thus preventing the Senate from addressing other pressing matters."

The GOP has also used parliamentary chicanery to prevent Obama from filling key roles in his administration. Under Senate rules, a single senator can anonymously block a vote on a White House nominee by using what's known as a "hold." "It's a policy that is easily abused," says former Bush adviser David Frum — and Republicans have proved themselves eager to abuse it, even at the expense of national security. After the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina continued to block a vote on the chief of the Transportation Security Administration because he didn't like the nominee's pro-union politics. In February, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama placed a blanket hold on more than 70 nominees — including three high-level Pentagon officials — in a stunt designed to steer more military pork projects to his state. The GOP's willingness to gum up the works is unprecedented: While Bush ended his first year with just 70 appointees awaiting confirmation, more than 200 of Obama's nominees are still in Senate limbo.

By voting en masse against the president's initiatives, Republicans now have the luxury of casting everything as Obama's fault — even if it requires distorting the president's record. Democrats, they argue, are hurting average Americans. "The economy is worse for having done the stimulus," says Norquist. "It's not that it helped a little bit. It didn't help at all!" The GOP, he insists, can make the same argument on health care: "There's nothing in the health care bill that's any good at all. It's all taxes and transfers of income. There's nothing in there that reduces the costs of health care for anybody."

In reality, both assertions are demonstrably wrong. The stimulus has created 2 million jobs in its first year, according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, and the Democratic health care plan will save taxpayers $104 billion over 10 years. But Republicans aren't letting the reality-based virtues of Obama's initiatives stand in their way. To distract voters, they have unleashed an all-out campaign to demonize the president's agenda. Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, played a lead role in instigating the Tea Partiers — a nearly all-white movement that has cast the president as a socialist, Kenyan-born tyrant intent on bankrupting America and euthanizing the elderly. The Tea Party's most extreme rhetoric has often been fanned by top Republicans in both the House and Senate. Last July, long before Sarah Palin coined the phrase "death panels," Boehner warned that Obama's health care plan would lead America "down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia." Grassley, one of the chief GOP negotiators on the bill, claimed that under "government-run health care" the ailing Ted Kennedy would have been denied care for his brain tumor by federal bean counters who would "pull the tubes." The rhetoric was as hypocritical as it was dishonest: Both Boehner and Grassley had previously voted to provide government-funded, end-of-life counseling for terminal patients as part of the GOP's Medicare expansion in 2003.

The Republicans' grotesque distortions of Obama's record have become a matter of dogma for the GOP's new grass-roots base. A recent poll found that only two percent of Tea Partiers are aware that the president enacted the largest middle-class tax cut in history. A staggering 44 percent, by contrast, believe that Obama has increased their taxes — and only 16 percent blame the current economic catastrophe on Bush, who ran up record deficits by slashing taxes for the wealthy.

The Tea Party's fight-the-power theatrics have also helped Republicans obscure the fact that the few alternatives they have bothered to offer to President Obama's policies are a repeat of the Bush-league economics that cater to Wall Street banks and hedge-fund billionaires. The GOP attacked Democrats for the size of the stimulus, for example, arguing that anything the government did be "timely, temporary and targeted." But the Republican alternative — a Rovian package of permanent tax cuts for big corporations and the wealthiest Americans — carried a 10-year price tag of more than $3 trillion. And the GOP alternative to health care — a mix of deregulation and health-savings accounts — would leave the share of Americans without insurance unchanged at 17 percent.

 

Rep. Paul Ryan — a former speechwriter for drug czar Bill Bennet — has been hailed as the GOP's new policy wonk. "Paul Ryan is offering policy alternatives so the Republican Party isn't just a Party of No," says Frank Luntz, the strategist who advised the GOP to frame Obama's reform effort as a "Washington takeover of health care." With a hairstyle that looks like a plastic Reagan wig purchased at a novelty store, Ryan clearly aspires to be seen as a throwback to the Gipper. But the policies he's promoting are pure Dubya. Despite Wall Street's catastrophic collapse, Ryan continues to call for scrapping Social Security and replacing it with private accounts. And the 2011 budget he proposed would dismantle Medicare and provide seniors with "vouchers" that would cover only a fraction of their medical costs. "There is no new thinking there," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "The 'new' ideas are nothing but a conservative retread."

But the GOP knows that it doesn't need to inspire voters — it just needs to inspire their discontent with Democrats. And Republicans are now poised to reap the benefits of a wave of anger over the very dysfunction in Washington that they have so skillfully aggravated. Polls show that 86 percent of voters now describe the political system as "broken," and the discontent is rising fastest among rural Americans and the country's highest wage earners — sweet spots for the GOP. "A lot of people who voted for Barack Obama are gonna come to the polls in November," says Luntz. "They're not going to vote against Obama or against the Democrats. They're going to vote against Washington, and all those things that Washington represents."

To challenge vulnerable Democrats, the GOP plans to co-opt the campaign strategy that ushered Obama into the White House. First, Republicans are actively recruiting younger candidates in the Scott Brown mold, men and women in their 30s and 40s who can create what Luntz calls "a sense of a new beginning for the GOP." Second, in a throwback to 1994, the party is drafting a new Contract With America, one that echoes the calls for greater government transparency that Obama championed. According to one strategist familiar with the manifesto, the document is designed to help cast the party — tarnished by years of blatant corruption and reckless spending — as above the backroom deals that marked both the stimulus plan and health care reform.

"The GOP is in better shape now than it was in 1994 at this time," says Luntz. "That's what's incredible about what has happened. The best presidential communicator in a generation — and Obama is better than Clinton — has allowed his opponents to get back up, brush themselves off and provide an alternative vision. The Republican Party is like Jason in Friday the 13th — you can't kill it. It will not die."

If anything is going to trip up the GOP, it may be Republicans themselves. The party's own strategists worry that the alliance with the combustible Tea Party may backfire during the GOP primaries, where even Republican stalwarts like John McCain now face stiff opposition from far-right candidates who are unlikely to fare well among the general electorate. "The most important impact of the Tea Party," warns Frum, "may be to saddle the Republican Party with less-electable candidates." Even more damaging is the likelihood that the Tea Party could begin acting as a true third party, siphoning off votes from the GOP. "If we fractionalize the Republican Party," Sen. Orrin Hatch warned Tea Party activists in February, "we are going to see more liberals elected."

Others are betting that Republicans have peaked too early. The stimulus plan is finally starting to pay economic dividends, and Democrats are gearing up to hammer Republicans for opposing it from now until Election Day. Even some GOP senators believe Republicans have overplayed the obstructionist tactics that have fueled the party's resurgence. In January, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio slammed McConnell for voting against the exact same deficit commission he had previously endorsed as the "best way" to curb federal debt. "Why is he backing off?" Voinovich asked. "If the public perceives that the Republican Party is playing political games whose main goal is to see how many more Republicans we can get in the Senate and the House, and the public interest be damned — it's going to backfire."

According to Rollins, the election of Scott Brown may actually help Democrats. "They've been woken up early," he says. With eight months to go before the midterm elections — "a lifetime in politics" — the Democrats have the largest majority in the Senate that either party has enjoyed since the 1970s. "Democrats need to ask themselves, 'What can we do with our own side?' and not worry about the other side," advises Rollins. "They've got to put something on the board."

To do that, strategists from both parties agree, Obama must stop acting like the negotiator in chief and channel his inner Dick Cheney. That means setting a clear and uncompromising agenda, and empowering his staff and Cabinet secretaries to go out and fight for it. Even within the administration, Clemons says, "nobody really knows where he's at. He's made his own views opaque. And a lot of stuff that people thought he was going to deliver on he's moved away from, tempered or put on hold."

The White House seems to have gotten the message. In January, the president ordered his former campaign czar, David Plouffe, to step up his role in the midterm elections, placing a long-overdue emphasis on grass-roots mobilizing. Obama has also decided to stop outsourcing so much responsibility to Congress. "It was clear that too often we didn't have the ball," a White House spokesman admitted recently. "In 2010, the president will constantly be doing high-profile things to be the person driving the narrative." Obama finally drafted his own version of the health care bill — one that strips the $100 million payoff for Ben Nelson — and Democrats appear ready to use a filibuster-proof process known as budget reconciliation to approve the measure with a simple majority. "We're going to pass a bill," a senior aide to the Democratic leadership predicts, "and we're going to have several months to talk about its benefits before the elections in November."

The stakes couldn't be higher. The battle in the weeks ahead will reveal what kind of president Barack Obama has it in him to become. Will he be a transformative figure like Reagan? An incrementalist like Clinton? Or a hapless one-termer like Carter? Most Americans are betting Carter: Only 44 percent say Obama deserves re-election. "Unless he can re-create momentum," says Clemons, "Democrats are looking at a bloodbath in 2010." And a whole new ballgame in 2012.

[From Issue 1100 — March 18, 2010]

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