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Nevertheless, Republicans were jubilant. The stimulus was unpopular, so they believed they had won by losing. At a caucus retreat at a Virginia resort, House minority leader John Boehner replayed the video of the vote, prompting a standing ovation. "We'll have more to come!" Cantor said. Pence showed a clip from Patton of the general rallying his troops against their Nazi enemy: "We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we're going to go through him like crap through a goose!"
The stimulus debate established the pattern for the next four years. Republicans opposed the entire Obama agenda--a health care plan based on Romney's, a cap-and-trade regime that McCain had supported in 2008, financial reform after a financial meltdown. Obama squeezed his health care and Wall Street reform bills through Congress anyway, but the quest for 60 votes in the Senate forced him to cut deals that made his initiatives look ugly. And the Tea Party--which held its first rally 10 days after Obama signed the stimulus--became a powerful force opposing the Obama agenda, and a double-edged sword for Washington Republicans.
CAN THEY GOVERN?
Senator Bennett was a loyal soldier in McConnell's army of No, voting against the stimulus and Obamacare. He had been just as loyal a soldier in Bush's army of Yes. But to the Tea Party, that was no longer a point in "Bailout Bob's" favor. Utah's GOP convention didn't even let him defend his seat in a primary in 2010, choosing two Tea Partyers to run instead. "It was just, 'You betrayed us! You voted with Bush!'" Bennett says. "I remember being at Republican conventions where people would say, 'Stand firm with Bush!' So I did, and now you hate me?"
Bennett says his friend Romney commiserated with him about the Tea Party's ingratitude, telling a presumably apocryphal story about getting bitten by a ferret he had tried to rescue from a dishwasher. "Mitt said the Tea Party people are like that ferret in the dishwasher," he says. "They're so frightened and angry, they'll even bite Bob Bennett, who's trying to get the country out of this mess."
Insufficient anti-Obama fervor had become politically fatal in the GOP. Tea Partyers won rage-a-thon Republican primaries against less dogmatic candidates in Delaware, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, Kentucky and Alaska, which ultimately cost the GOP control of the Senate in 2010.
As the party comes together in Tampa, it's still not clear whether it can unite behind an agenda. Since the midterms, Washington Republicans have struggled to ride the Tea Party tiger. They've crusaded against spending and debt, threatening to shut down the government if Obama wouldn't agree to their austerity demands. They have pushed--although less vigorously after it polled terribly--the Ryan plan of massive tax cuts for "job creators," a controversial overhaul of Medicare for future generations and dramatic but unspecified cuts in other nondefense spending.