On January 20, 2009, the day Obama was inaugurated, twelve Republican lawmakers gathered in a private dining room of an exclusive Washington restaurant. The meeting lasted for four hours. Before they parted, each of the Senators and Representatives had pledged to block, obstruct, and otherwise sabotage every single thing the new president tried to do.
According to Robert Draper’s book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,” the purpose of the dinner was to pull the Republican party out of the hole into which it has sunk. This new President was enormously popular: a record 1.8 million people had come to Washington to witness the swearing-in ceremony. Democrats now controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. The Republicans were “in the woods.”
The dinner was organized by Frank Luntz, GOP pollster and communications specialist. The men who sat around the table that night included top Republican leaders: Paul Ryan (WI), Eric Cantor (VA), Bob Corker (TN), Jim DeMint, (SC), Tom Coburn (OK), Jon Kyl (AZ), and Newt Gingrich, among others.
While the President and his wife shuttled among the ten inaugural balls, this elite group of Washington insiders and strategists drank wine and discussed how they might block the agenda this populist president had promised. Never mind that the country was on the verge of economic collapse. The depth of the financial crisis and the enormous popularity of this new president presented the greatest threat to corporate control of government since the days of FDR. Republicans might never again hold the reins of power, unless something was done. They settled on a plan: No matter what the president suggested, they would oppose it. Whatever bills he sent up to the hill, they would vote against. They would stand firm.
Raise the debt ceiling? No. Extend unemployment insurance? No. Provide health care for 50 million uninsured Americans? No. Pass a bill that would put millions back to work repairing roads and bridges? No. Funnel money to states to hire police and teachers? No.
Some of these men were visionaries; they understood that if Obama were able to fulfill his promises, it would so hobble the Republican party they could never again hope to control the government. Obama would provide universal health care for all Americans. He would reverse Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest, but leave intact cuts for the rest of America. He would end the war in Iraq and bring our soldiers home. He’d end “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell.” He’d pass credit card reform and create a new, consumer protection agency to end the abuses in the banking and financial industry. He’d protect our environment by encouraging renewable energy, especially wind and solar. He’d provide tax cuts for automakers to build fuel-efficient cars. He’d cap interest on pay-day loans. He’d end oil industry subsidies.
Perhaps the biggest threat to these Republicans was the specter of universal health care. If Obama could fulfill his promise to provide health care for all Americans, if he could provide a public option to compete with private insurance companies, would the millions of newly-registered voters ever vote for the Republican ticket? Would Republicans ever again be able to push their agenda of low taxes for the rich, no restrictions on businesses so they could pollute at will, subsidies for oil companies, health insurance companies who could remain hugely profitable by denying coverage to anyone with pre-existing conditions, setting limits on policies, throwing people off the rolls if they got sick.
The Democratic party had registered millions of new voters, and these newly-empowered citizens, many voting for the first time, were excited as never before. If Obama and the Democratic party could keep them, blacks, minorities, and young people, could Republicans ever hope to occupy the White House and the two houses of Congress again?
That was what was at stake when these lawmakers and their strategists met that night in 2009. We’ve seen the results. They voted against health care for 50 million uninsured, against unemployment insurance, against tax relief for the middle class, against job bills.
They had help along the way. Rush Limbaugh took to the airways and said he hoped Obama failed. There was Grover Norquist and his infamous pledge, signed by nearly every Republican in both the House and Senate, to never, ever vote for a tax increase. Mitch McConnell, in a moment of unusual candor, said his goal was to make Obama a one-term president, and that should be the goal of every single member of his party. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, crafted voter-suppression laws that were introduced in 34 states in 2011. The Supreme Court Citizen United decision in early 2010 allowed corporations to donate millions of dollars to Republican candidates, swamping their Democratic opponents.
The future of the Republican Party was at stake that night. These men, led by the likes of Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, and Paul Ryan, knew that. Extreme measures were needed. If the party was ever going to resurrect itself, they had to oppose the President on every single issue. It was the Republican Representative from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, who exhorted his fellow lawmakers to stick together. “The only way we’ll succeed is if we’re united,” he said. “If we tear ourselves apart, we’re finished.” They left the restaurant that night promising to do exactly that: they would stand together in total and complete opposition to the new President.
The results of the November election will show if their efforts bear fruit. Will our government once again belong to the people, or to an elite group of wealthy plutocrats?