The Cabal

I’m guessing that Sam Stein’s vivid excerpt from Robert Draper’s new book on the inner workings of the 111th Congress is going to get a lot of attention as it sinks in among the progressive chattering classes. Pardon the extended quote, but it’s worth it if you haven’t read it:

As President Barack Obama was celebrating his inauguration at various balls, top Republican lawmakers and strategists were conjuring up ways to submarine his presidency at a private dinner in Washington.

The event — which provides a telling revelation for how quickly the post-election climate soured — serves as the prologue of Robert Draper’s much-discussed and heavily-reported new book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.”

According to Draper, the guest list that night (which was just over 15 people in total) included Republican Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Pete Sessions (Texas), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) and Dan Lungren (Calif.), along with Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.). The non-lawmakers present included Newt Gingrich, several years removed from his presidential campaign, and Frank Luntz, the long-time Republican wordsmith. Notably absent were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who, Draper writes, had an acrimonious relationship with Luntz.

For several hours in the Caucus Room (a high-end D.C. establishment), the book says they plotted out ways to not just win back political power, but to also put the brakes on Obama’s legislative platform.

In Draper’s account, these schemers decided on three very immediate steps: a campaign of villification aimed at Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, an effort to obtain a unanimous vote in the House against economic stimulus legislation, and an early initiation of attack ads. The larger philosophy was very Gingrichian:

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” Draper quotes McCarthy as saying. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

By calling this “Gingrichian,” I am alluding not only to the fact that the Newtster was present at this dinner, but that it reflected a combat style that House Republicans had been largely pursuing since Gingrich replaced Bob Michel as Leader in 1994. So Stein raises the obvious question: Does this scenario shock you?

Whether or not that’s shocking depends on the degree to which one’s view of politics has been jaded. What’s certainly noteworthy is the timing. When Mitch McConnell said in October 2010 that his party’s primary goal in the next Congress was to make Obama a one-term president, it was treated as remarkably candid and deeply cynical. Had he said it publicly in January 2009, it would likely have caused an uproar.

Actually, I don’t know if that is true. Sure, it is generally not considered seemly to publicly admit that partisan politicians think about partisan politics 24-7. But they do, and it’s hardly a new development. When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. What is somewhat new, however, is a political atmosphere in which partisanship can be depicted as identical to civic virtue: that “saving” the country from its president is viewed by the rank-and-file of a major political party, and by its servants and masters in the chattering classes and activist circles, as a necessary and sufficient agenda. That, along with the ability to convince the news media that this attitude of 100% opposition was actually a frustrated effort to cooperate, was key to the GOP’s ability to maintain a united front against anything Obama proposed, even if it was the GOP’s talking points from the day before yesterday.

What’s more interesting to me than the evidence of a cabal to plot against the president (what does anyone suppose Republicans would be doing on the night of their opponent’s apotheosis, raising toasts to his success?) is how effectively dissenting voices were obscured or rubbed out. I mean, when, exactly, did Republicans as a group repudiate the Keynesian economics that had been the bipartisan background for how Washington dealt with rececssions going back to the 70s, reinforced by the supply-siders’ hatred for “root canal” austerity policies? How did they so quickly convince hundreds of people leaving jobs in the Bush administration to agree that their former boss and one-time maximum leader of the conservative forces was in fact an unprincipled Big Spender who had sold out The Cause? And at what point, exactly, did the Move Right To Win strategy that had always existed on the fringes of conservative political science circles become uniform orthodoxy, to the point that the 2012 GOP nomination contest because strictly a matter of identifying the maximum conservatism the political markets could bear?

All this happened very fast, and that’s what I’d like to know more about. Sorry, maybe I’m cynical or jaded, but I’m not shocked to hear that Republicans decided at the very beginning of the Obama administration that they weren’t going to wait around for months to devise a strategy for 2010 or 2012. It’s how efficiently they executed it that is interesting.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.