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."
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