How Barack Obama Destroyed the Republican Party

When President Obama invited the congressional Republicans to Blair House to discuss his comprehensive health care reform bill on February 25th, 2010, he had a variety of motives. Despite passing the Affordable Care Act through the House on November 7th, and through the Senate on Christmas Eve, the bill had not gone through the conference process that reconciles House and Senate versions of a bill into one piece of legislation which must then be passed (again) by both houses to become a law. On January 19th, Scott Brown unexpectedly won a special election in Massachusetts to fill the seat of the recently deceased Sen. Edward Kennedy, and the Democrats lost the 60th vote they needed in the Senate to reconcile their bill with the House’s version.

At that point, the bill was truly endangered, and the only way to save it was to use a controversial parliamentary procedure that I won’t go into in detail here. Suffice to say that some Democrats were feeling skittish about it, particularly in the House, because the procedural move required the House to pass the Senate version of the bill with no changes. Meanwhile, the Republicans were hammering the president for breaking a campaign pledge to conduct the health reform negotiations publicly and transparently on C-SPAN.

So, the president asked the Republicans to Blair House and put the whole thing on C-SPAN and made a big show of inviting them to provide their input to improve the bill. Looming over the whole thing was the obvious threat that the Democrats would pass the bill as it was if no Republicans came forward who were willing to trade their support for inclusion of some of their ideas.

Now, the Blair House meeting was naked political theater, but it didn’t have to be. The Republicans had adopted a policy of opposition in principle, meaning that the details of the bill were irrelevant. If you doubt me, Mitch McConnell twice went on the record to prove that I am right.

Only a few weeks after the Blair House meeting, McConnell explained to the New York Times why the details of the bill never mattered:

“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out.”

A year later, in early 2011, he told Joshua Green of the Atlantic:

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals. Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

This obstructive strategy wasn’t restricted to the health care bill. It was across the board. And historians will debate how long it took President Obama to figure out that he was dealing with adversaries of zero good faith. But the president wasn’t deluded into thinking the Blair House meeting would create some kind of breakthrough. It was strictly for optics and to sooth anxiety in his own caucuses.

The thing is, the unwillingness of the Republicans to negotiate was their decision.

Keep that in mind when reading Daniel Henninger’s piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Barack Obama will retire a happy man. He is now close to destroying his political enemies—the Republican Party, the American conservative movement and the public-policy legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Today, the last men standing amidst the debris of the Republican presidential competition are Donald Trump, a political independent who is using the Republican Party like an Uber car; Ted Cruz, who used the Republican Party as a footstool; and John Kasich, a remnant of the Reagan revolution, who is being told by Republicans to quit.

History may quibble, but this death-spiral began with Barack Obama’s health-care summit at Blair House on Feb. 25, 2010. For a day, Republicans gave detailed policy critiques of the proposed Affordable Care Act. When it was over, the Democrats, including Mr. Obama, said they had heard nothing new.

That meeting was the last good-faith event in the Obama presidency. Barack Obama killed politics in Washington that day because he had no use for it, and has said so many times.

I don’t know if Henninger believes a single word of what he wrote there, but none of what he wrote about the Blair House summit is true. There was nothing “good faith” about the summit on either side, although, as I’ve said, there was also nothing precluding the Republicans from engaging in the legislative process. The “detailed policy critiques” the Republicans supposedly supplied that day were talking points that ignored the analysis of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. Virtually nothing they said or predicted turned out to be true. And no Republican offered to support the bill if only some of their concerns were addressed.

Henninger has correctly recognized that the president has presided over the destruction of his political enemies, but his analysis of how and why this happened reflects his permanent residence in a giant bubble of epistemic closure where the only sound is the chords of the Mighty Right-Wing Wurlitzer that plays all day long, every day.

For example:

After Mr. Obama won in 2008, Democrats controlled the Senate and House with large majorities. Normally, a party out of power is disabled but not destroyed by the presidency’s advantages. Democrats, when out of power, historically remain intact until the wheel turns again. Their ideology has been simple: tax and spend.

The minority Republicans began well. In 2010, ObamaCare passed with zero Republican Senate votes, and Dodd-Frank with only one Republican Senate vote. It was a remarkable display of party discipline.

Whatever you want to say about the ideology that drove Democrats to support the Affordable Care Act, it ought to be generously recognized that providing people access to health care was the priority, not taxing or spending to provide that access. As for the Republican opposition to the Dodd-Frank bill (and the American Recovery Act), this was more than a remarkable display of party discipline. It was an appalling display of refusal to take any responsibility for running the global economy into the Great Recession. When Dick Cheney justified Bush’s giant tax cuts by saying that Ronald Reagan had proven that budget deficits don’t matter, there was barely a peep of objection from conservative Republicans, but once Obama needed spending to save the economy, they suddenly thought the deficit was the biggest problem facing the country. They did nothing as the housing bubble inflated, pumped up by toxic under-regulated financial products and mortgage lending standards, and they bemoaned the bailout of failing colossal banks, but they couldn’t be bothered to support legislation designed to prevent a repeat of those mistakes.

For Henninger, this performance amounted to the Republicans “starting well” at the beginning of the Obama presidency.

In his opinion, things didn’t begin to go wrong until after Obama was reelected, and:

The right began demanding that congressional Republicans conduct ritualistic suicide raids on the Obama presidency. The MSM would have depicted these as hapless defeats by presidential veto, but some wanted the catharsis of constant public losses—on principle.

By early 2015, when the primary season began, virtually all issues inside the Republican Party had been reframed as proof of betrayal—either of conservative principle or of “the middle class.” Trade is a jobs sellout. Immigration reform is amnesty.

With his Cheshire Cat grin, Barack Obama faded into the background and let the conservatives’ civil war rip. For Republicans, every grievance, slight or loss became a scab to be picked, day after day.

In time, the attacks on “the establishment” and “donor class” became indiscriminate, ostracizing good people in the party and inside the conservative movement. The anti-establishment offensive created a frenzy faction inside the Republican base. And of course, it produced Donald Trump.

The Trumpians and Cruzians, who of late have been knifing one another in a blind rage, say this is a rebirth. So was Rosemary’s baby.

Where’s the recognition that the overheated rhetoric of the first term led to the calls for ritualistic suicide missions in the second? And, let’s be honest. The Republicans didn’t wait until the second term to begin the suicide missions. According to a tally kept by the Washington Post, the Republicans had already voted to repeal all or part of Obamacare 33 times by Election Day in 2012.

Now, for my money, the key moment that set the Republicans on the course of destruction didn’t come at the Blair House of February 25th, 2010. It came at the Republican retreat in Baltimore on January 29th, 2010. That’s when the president responded to a question from Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee about his health care bill:

The component parts of this thing are pretty similar to what Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Tom Daschle proposed at the beginning of this debate last year.

Now, you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and, certainly you don’t agree with Tom Daschle on much, but that’s not a radical bunch. But if you were to listen to the debate and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot. No, I mean, that’s how you guys — (applause) — that’s how you guys presented it.

And so I’m thinking to myself, well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist — no, look, I mean, I’m just saying, I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans — is similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

So all I’m saying is, we’ve got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality. I’m not suggesting that we’re going to agree on everything, whether it’s on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.

And I would just say that we have to think about tone. It’s not just on your side, by the way — it’s on our side, as well. This is part of what’s happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do.

The Republicans should have listened to the president’s advice.

They thought they’d get more short-term bang for the buck by encouraging the Tea Party and the Birthers (including Trump). And they did.

And now their long-term reward is “Barack Obama will retire a happy man. He is now close to destroying his political enemies—the Republican Party, the American conservative movement and the public-policy legacy of Ronald Reagan.”

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.