The Party of No: New Details on the GOP Plot to Obstruct Obama

  • Share
  • Read Later
Win McNamee / Getty Images

House Majority Leader and House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Eric Cantor answers questions from reporters after speaking at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event entitled Controlling Costs: The Price of Good Health July 12, 2011 in Washington, DC.

TIME just published “The Party of No,” an article adapted from my new book, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. It reveals some of my reporting on the Republican plot to obstruct President Obama before he even took office, including secret meetings led by House GOP whip Eric Cantor (in December 2008) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (in early January 2009) in which they laid out their daring (though cynical and political) no-honeymoon strategy of all-out resistance to a popular President-elect during an economic emergency. “If he was for it,” former Ohio Senator George Voinovich explained, “we had to be against it.” The excerpt includes a special bonus nugget of Mitt Romney dissing the Tea Party.

But as we say in the sales world: There’s more! I’m going to be blogging some of the news and larger themes from the book here at TIME.com, and I’ll kick it off with more scenes from the early days of the Republican strategy of No. Read on to hear what Joe Biden’s sources in the Senate GOP were telling him, some candid pillow talk between a Republican staffer and an Obama aide, and a top Republican admitting his party didn’t want to “play.” I’ll start with a scene I consider a turning point in the Obama era, when the new President went to the Hill to extend his hand and the GOP spurned it.

On Jan. 27, 2009, House Republican leader John Boehner opened his weekly conference meeting with an announcement: Obama would make his first visit to the Capitol around noon, to meet exclusively with Republicans about his economic-recovery plan. “We’re looking forward to the President’s visit,” Boehner said.

The niceties ended there, as Boehner turned to the $815 billion stimulus bill that House Democrats had just unveiled. Boehner complained that it would spend too much, too late, on too many Democratic goodies. He urged his members to trash it on cable, on YouTube, on the House floor: “It’s another run-of-the-mill, undisciplined, cumbersome, wasteful Washington spending bill … I hope everyone here will join me in voting no!

Cantor’s whip staff had been planning a “walk-back” strategy in which they would start leaking that 50 Republicans might vote yes, then that they were down to 30 problem children, then that they might lose 20 or so. The idea was to convey momentum. “You want the members to feel like, Oh, the herd is moving. I’ve got to move with the herd,” explains Rob Collins, Cantor’s chief of staff at the time. That way, even if a dozen Republicans ultimately defected, it would look as if Obama failed to meet expectations.

But when he addressed the conference, Cantor adopted a different strategy. “We’re not going to lose any Republicans,” he declared. His staff was stunned.

“We’re like, Uhhhhh, we have to recalibrate,” Collins recalls.

Afterward, Cantor’s aides asked if he was sure he wanted to go that far out on a limb. Zero was a low number. Centrists and big-spending appropriators from Obama-friendly districts would be sorely tempted to break ranks. If Cantor promised unanimity and failed to deliver, the press would have the story it craved: Republicans divided, dysfunction junction, still clueless after two straight spankings.

But Cantor said yes, he meant zero. He was afraid that if the Democrats managed to pick off two or three Republicans, they’d be able to slap a “bipartisan” label on the bill. “We can get there,” he said. “If we don’t get there, we can try like hell to get there.”

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.”

But that wasn’t the only signal. A few other examples:

• Vice President Biden told me that during the transition, he was warned not to expect any bipartisan cooperation on major votes. “I spoke to seven different Republican Senators who said, ‘Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything,’ ” he recalled. His informants said McConnell had demanded unified resistance. “The way it was characterized to me was, ‘For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back,’ ” Biden said. The Vice President said he hasn’t even told Obama who his sources were, but Bob Bennett of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania both confirmed they had conversations with Biden along those lines.

“So I promise you — and the President agreed with me — I never thought we were going to get Republican support,” Biden said.

• One Obama aide said he received a similar warning from a Republican Senate staffer he was seeing at the time. He remembered asking her one morning in bed, How do we get a stimulus deal? She replied, Baby, there’s no deal!

“This is how we get whole,” she said with a laugh. “We’re going to do to you what you did to us in 2006.”

• 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 says. 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.’ ”

Read more in this week’s issue of TIME or pick up a copy of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.

12 comments
strokeme
strokeme

There should be a law in place that makes it a federal crime for a politician to knowingly put his party over the well being of the the people and the country, and should be punishable with life in prison... not cushy federal prison either. Just regular, scary prison... the same prison these politicians put regular people that get caught with a joint or a pill and have their lives ruined. That sounds fair to me.

snidelywhiplash
snidelywhiplash

What's really a shame is that this was published in AUGUST.  

Before the conventions, when the majority of the press and politicos were on vacation, and before the majority of the electorate was paying attention.  

Some day, perhaps Democrats and liberals will learn how news cycles and marketing work.

RedStateModerate
RedStateModerate

Wow, just wow. Spineless cowards. I had wondered why my former Congressman in TN, a long-time obstetrician, wouldn't have wanted to participate in the crafting of the AHCA. He probably would've liked to, but Cantor amp; Co. would've ruined him if he'd dared. I don't see how I could ever vote for a Republican again after this. 

theoldkathy
theoldkathy

I hope this puts an end, for the rational, to the stories that President Obama never reached out to Republicans.

 

outsider2011
outsider2011

 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.’”Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2012...

theoldkathy
theoldkathy

This is breathtakingly cynical, the substitution of the good of the tribe over the good of the country.

Arimathean
Arimathean

This is the kind of thing that makes me angry whenever someone says, "Oh, the mainstream media is to blame for this and that."  No, it isn't.  The citizens of this country are to blame for seeing this bull**** for (at least) two years and being completely fine with it.  I saw this reported in the media at the time (though not with such intriguing details).  So did anyone who ever turned the channel from FOX News to anything else.  Enough of our citizenry, though, didn't care, and voted for these self-important ideologues anyway.

DerekHologram
DerekHologram

With treasonous behavior like that it is a wonder that 10% of the populace still have any respect for the institution.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

The Party of No is the same person with different faces.  Give all these clones the boot in November and watch things get done in the Congress.  I'm holding my breath, not.

outsider2011
outsider2011

I'd like to hear our resident wing nuts explain how this is not an attempt to just shut the gov't down because a dem president was in power.

While they're at it, how is this responsible govt?

And lastly how they can claim, straight faced - that they care about the country at all.

I believe MG's reporting here.

And it sickens me. Not MG, but the repubs.

AfGuyReturns
AfGuyReturns

You're forgetting something... but I can't quite place my finger on it...

Yes, he is a Dem president, but there's something else that might explain their opposition to him... darn, what might that be...?

Couldn't be his race, could it...?  No, of course not... we're past that as a country and the GOP is past that as a party...

Got it. He was born someplace else... that HAS to be it... Or he went to Harvard... or something.

But it just COULDN'T be his color....