Can Republicans Win Big as the Party of No?

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell answers media questions before President Obama's State of the Union address

As Republicans eagerly anticipate a midterm election that could realistically put them back in control of at least one of the two chambers of Congress, it's easy to forget just how marginalized they felt only a year ago, and what a big gamble they took to find themselves in their current position.

At that time, House Republican leaders were facing a newly elected Democratic President with approval ratings in the 70s and an economy in the tank. After two bruising election cycles in which the GOP lost the White House and both the House and Senate, pundits were predicting they might be at the dawn of another 40-year stint in the minority. President Obama was publicly reaching out to Republicans on the massive stimulus bill, but something made House minority leader John Boehner and No. 2 House Republican Eric Cantor pause at the idea of working hand in hand with Obama.

They traveled to the White House on Friday, Jan. 23, 2009, to present Obama with their ideas for the stimulus bill. They weren't greatly encouraged, though, when Obama told them at that meeting in the Roosevelt Room that "elections have consequences, and I won." Over the weekend, the GOP leadership met, and by the time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a deal on the legislation late Sunday, they were sure that nothing they had proposed was included in the measure.

But outright opposition to the stimulus was a huge risk: after all, if the bill worked — and many independent economists believe it did manage to stave off a far worse recession — they could be seen as having been on the wrong side of history. As members wandered in and out of Cantor's conference room on the third floor of the Capitol that Monday, a consensus began to form. "The lesson learned from the stimulus vote was our members felt comfortable in taking that political risk against a popular President if we had a credible alternative, and we did," Cantor says. Critics will surely debate just how credible those alternatives really were — their budget proposal, for instance, would have done away with Medicare. But the GOP came up with enough proposals of their own to give Republicans cover to vote nearly unilaterally against the stimulus, the budget, the climate-change bill and, of course, health care reform.

Republicans still chafe at being labeled as the party of no; House Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence claimed last Friday that Obama's visit to talk to the GOP caucus had validated their contention that they have legitimate policy ideas of their own. But there is no doubt that the obstructionist strategy helped bolster the beleaguered fiscal-conservative arm of the Republican Party. After eight years of growing the government under the Bush Administration, creating new entitlements and funding bridges to nowhere, their reputation was in shreds. "It was a very dangerous strategy because, if the stimulus worked, the Republicans would have been very vulnerable," says John Feehery, a Republican strategist. "But it didn't work, and that gave the GOP some needed credibility."

Their message, that the Obama Administration has been pushing job-killing legislation on everything from health care to global warming, seems to have resonated with independent voters who helped win Republicans the Virginia and New Jersey governors' mansions and, in a surprise upset, Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts. "The President isn't having trouble because Republicans oppose his job-killing agenda — he's having trouble because the American people oppose his job-killing agenda," says Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.

For all the Super Bowl parties and photo-op Oval Office visits Obama has held with Republicans, Democrats have relied too heavily on their wide majorities in both chambers to ram legislation through, says Doug Heye, a GOP strategist. "There was never any follow-up to those feints at bipartisanship," Heye says.

Still, there's only so much you can oppose before you become part of the problem, says Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. And the White House is counting on that fact to try to make the Republicans' refusal to even consider supporting some moderate proposals on tax cuts and deficit commissions a liability in the fall. Last week, a senior Administration official said, "We will not allow the next 10 months to become a referendum on Barack Obama."

In his State of the Union, Obama made that clear: "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let's show the American people that we can do it together." And in his well-received question-time appearance in front of Republicans on Friday afternoon, the President seemed to gain back some momentum by taking the GOP to task for their unwillingness to compromise. "On some very big things, we've seen party-line votes that, I'm just going to be honest, were disappointing," Obama said. "I'm ready and eager to work with anyone who is willing to proceed in a spirit of goodwill. But understand, if we can't break free from partisan gridlock, if we can't move past a politics of no, if resistance supplants constructive debate, I still have to meet my responsibilities as President."

Congressional observers like Ornstein believe that the GOP has to do more to emphasize the positive and — in the tradition of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who won the House for Republicans in a surprise wave in 1994 — introduce some version of a new Contract with America. "The approach [to oppose Obama's agenda] was clearly set by the leaders to try to jump-start a moribund and dispirited party, and with the idea that if they could do what their Gingrich-led predecessors did in 1993-94, they could return to majority status on the back of a failed President with a divided majority party," Ornstein says. "It works less well, ironically, when there are 59 Democrats in the Senate and the GOP loses the excuse that the Dems have enough members to do it themselves. The burden to join in governing is greater — and the risks of opting out are greater yet." Indeed, health care reform, if it fails, will have been brought down not by Democratic divisions as it was in the early '90s but by the loss of their 60th seat — and with it, their filibuster-proof majority. No wonder that Obama, in his State of the Union speech, also addressed Republicans directly, telling them, "The responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

And while there's a similar momentum to 1994's, the comparison is not apples to apples. Republicans remain cash-strapped, plagued by retirements and struggling to unite a base still somewhat inclined to fratricidal bouts of rage. Look no farther than the November special election in New York's 23rd congressional district for evidence of how a divided GOP will fail. Before they get to next November almost all of their candidates, and some incumbents, will have to win primaries in a landscape transformed by the tea-party movement. And there's a fine line with swing voters between being perceived as saving America from Obama's supposedly socialist agenda and blocking job-saving and — in the case of health care — life-saving legislation for the sake of pure politics.

Which is partly why Republicans are doing their best to keep a civil tone. No one yelled "You lie!" at Obama during his speech Wednesday night, though there was much rolling of eyes and shaking of heads from the GOP side of the aisle. Republicans realize they have to look like they are at least trying to get something achieved this year, even as they benefit politically from continued gridlock on Capitol Hill.