It was December 2008, Barack Obama had just been elected--and the Republican Party had just followed George W. Bush off a political cliff. After preaching small government, balanced budgets and economic growth while producing bigger government, exploding deficits and economic collapse, they had gotten pasted for the second straight election. Publishers were rushing out titles like The Strange Death of Republican America and 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. "We were in disarray," recalls Representative Pete Sessions of Texas. "People were comparing us to cockroaches, saying we weren't even relevant. We had to change the mind-set."
With the economy in free fall and Obama's approval rating in the stratosphere, the Beltway believed chastened Republicans would have to cooperate with him. But Eric Cantor of Virginia, the new House minority whip, believed chastened Republicans should start acting like Republicans. He summoned his whip team to his condo building to plot strategy, and the strategy was: Fight. He invited two pollsters to the meeting, but no policy experts because he wanted Republicans to be communicators, not policymakers. They lacked the power to block the Obama agenda, but they could win the battle for public opinion if they could stick together, so Obama couldn't claim bipartisan victories.
"We're not here to cut deals and get crumbs and stay in the minority for another 40 years," Cantor said. "We're not rolling over. We're going to fight these guys. We're down, but things are going to change."
A few weeks later, Sessions began his presentation at a House Republican leadership retreat in Annapolis, Md., with an existential political question: "If the purpose of the majority is to govern ... What is our purpose?" The answer was not to promote Republican policies, or stop Democratic policies, or even make Democratic bills less offensive to Republicans. "The purpose of the minority is to become the majority," Sessions wrote. "That is the entire conference's mission."
Mission accomplished. In the 2010 elections, the GOP reclaimed the House, ushering in two years of bitter stalemate with Obama and the Democratic Senate. But they still haven't done much legislating. They've defined themselves politically by their opposition to Obama, papering over tensions between the Republican Party establishment and Tea Party activists. They've defined themselves ideologically by their tentative embrace of Paul Ryan's ambitious budget plan. So if Mitt Romney wins the White House with Ryan at his side, how would the Party of No try to govern?
To make an educated guess, it helps to go back to the start of the Obama era.
'IF OBAMA WAS FOR IT ...'
Senate republicans held their own retreat in January 2009 at the Library of Congress, and they were even gloomier than their House counterparts. "We might find ourselves in the minority for generations," groaned Utah Senator Bob Bennett. Five of the 41 surviving GOP Senators would soon announce their retirement.
"We were discouraged, dispirited and divided," Bennett recalls. "The one guy who recognized that it need not be so was Mitch McConnell."