I really wish the level of the Republican party’s unyielding opposition to anything Barack Obama suggested – at the depths of a depression-level economic crisis, no less – surprised me, but it doesn’t. Pieces of this story have been slipping out for a while, and Michael Grunwald documents more in his new book on the Obama Presidency, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.
It isn’t pretty.
Shortly before 11 a.m., the AP reported that Boehner had urged Republicans to oppose the stimulus. Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs handed Obama a copy of the story in the Oval Office, just before he left for the Hill to make his case for the stimulus, an unprecedented visit to the opposition after just a week in office. “You know, we still thought this was on the level,” Gibbs says. Obama political aide David Axelrod says that after the president left, White House aides were buzzing about the insult. And they didn’t even know that Cantor had vowed to whip a unanimous vote—which, ultimately, he did.
“It was stunning that we’d set this up and before hearing from the President, they’d say they were going to oppose this,” Axelrod says. “Our feeling was, we were dealing with a potential disaster of epic proportions that demanded cooperation. If anything was a signal of what the next two years would be like, it was that.”
David Obey, then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, met with his GOP counterpart, Jerry Lewis, to explain what Democrats had in mind for the stimulus and ask what Republicans wanted to include. “Jerry’s response was: ‘I’m sorry, but leadership tells us we can’t play,’” Obey told me. “Exact quote: ‘We can’t play.’ What they said right from the get-go was: It doesn’t matter what the hell you do, we ain’t going to help you. We’re going to stand on the sidelines and bitch.”
Lewis blames Obey and the Democrats for the committee’s turn toward extreme partisanship, but he doesn’t deny that GOP leaders made a decision not to play. “The leadership decided there was no play to be had,” he said. Republicans recognized that after Obama’s big promises about bipartisanship, they could break those promises by refusing to cooperate. In the words of Congressman Tom Cole, a deputy Republican whip: “We wanted the talking point: ‘The only thing bipartisan was the opposition.’”
Now, clearly Congresscritters are free to oppose things a President proposes, and I certainly was in favor of that approach most of the time George W. Bush was in office. That said, while Democrats largely did oppose Bush (most disagreed with him, after all), they weren’t forced to by their party leaders. And they didn’t, at all, when it came to the national crises of the Bush Administration: 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq. (A little more pushback on Iraq would have been nice, but in that case, the governing party framed the votes as measures of patriotism.) But in 2009, a major political party decided that, even though the economy was cratering jobs at an alarming rate and we were headed to a Great Depression-typeperiod without some form of intervention, it was more important to get back in power than a) be part of the political process of creating legislation and b) allowing their representatives to represent their districts.
John McCain said, in 2008, that he’d rather lose an election than lose a war, implying, of course, that Obama would make that trade in a heartbeat.
Well, his GOP (and he was part of the plan) decided it was better to destroy a Presidency than assist the country. That doesn’t make the Republican party traitorous, but it certainly doesn’t make them patriots.
So next time people complain that Obama didn’t “reach out” to the GOP, or that this is the most “relentlessly partisan” administration evah, show them this.
And tell them to STFU.