Every president comes in like Barack Obama saying they're going to change the way Washington works, and Washington changes the way they work. The question is can Obama play the inside game with all its compromise and crassness and like Ronald Reagan still maintain his bond with the American people.
Reagan didn't have to expend much political capital to get his first piece of major legislation. Passing tax cuts in 1981 was like giving away candy, and Democrats rolled over for Reagan. Obama is the Reagan of our day with high personal and job approval ratings that translate into a boatload of political capital, which is why the Republican strategy of just saying no will fail.
House Republicans are fashioning themselves after Newt Gingrich, the bombastic former Speaker who led them to their first majority in 40 years. Gingrich and his merry band of reformers opposed President Clinton's first major economic legislation, a deficit reduction package with a tax increase for the top one percent of wage earners. Clinton didn't get a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate, but his stewardship of the economy got him reelected and led to a budget surplus. But success came with a high political price. Republicans capitalized on short-term dissatisfaction with Clinton and gained dominance of Congress for a dozen years, until their majority collapsed of its own weight, overcome by corruption, greed and inattention to the nation's problems.
Now, Republicans are betting that the $787 billion stimulus plan won't work, and they can frame the 2010 congressional election as a referendum on Obama's stewardship of the economy. Their mocking references to elements of the legislation are reminiscent of the way Gingrich's Republicans caused havoc with Clinton's crime bill, ridiculing as "midnight basketball" a program to open gyms at night to get inner-city youth off the streets. Gingrich played hardball, but he knew it wasn't enough to just say no, that Republicans had to be for something in a town where sparring over old political fights too often substitutes for original thought. With an intellect as explosive as his personality, aides joked that in his office there was a big box for Newt's ideas and a much smaller box labeled, "Newt's good ideas."
Imitators like Virginia Republican Eric Cantor are following the Gingrich script, but don't have the intellectual throw-weight behind the rhetoric. People forget Gingrich was in the Congress for 17 years before he became Speaker, and much of that time was consumed by his intellectual journey. He was a charter member of the "New Paradigm Society," a melding of minds between Gingrich Rightists and adherents of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
There are two ways a party can come back, says Al From, who founded the DLC in the darkest days after Democrats lost 49 states in the 1984 election. You can wait until the other guy screws up and win as the remainder party, which means you're betting against the country, which is not an admirable position. Or you can develop an alternative agenda, which is what the Democrats did when they were down and out, and it's what Gingrich did when he went head-to-head with Clinton. The DLC is credited with helping Clinton win the White House by moving the party to the right on divisive issues like crime, welfare and taxes. From jokes that he should hire himself out as a consultant to the Republicans since their predicament is the mirror image of what Democrats faced, except the GOP needs to move to the left. Just as Democrats in the '80s weren't registering with key parts of the electorate—young people, middle-class voters, whites who had become Reagan Democrats—the Republicans are losing all the key groups plus the demographic trends are against them.
The major turning point in From's analysis was Katrina, an event that stripped the Republicans of their aura of competence and laid bare the class differences between the parties. "Republicans haven't won an important contested election since Katrina," he asserts.
The winning formula for any political party is the compassion to care and the toughness to govern. Democrats came back by beefing up on toughness. Republicans lack compassion, and railing against money for Medicare and Head Start and subsidies for laid-off workers to pay for health insurance pleases the conservative base, but no one else. Pollster John Zogby finds the public disappointed that Washington has reverted to hyper-partisanship and split about the merits of the stimulus plan Obama signed into law this week. But the specifics matter less than the cable screamers and radio-talk hosts might suppose. "What they did vote for is to get something done and to do it by consensus," Zogby told NEWSWEEK. "The message for Republicans is what they're doing looks like obstruction." That's a well-trodden path that could consign the GOP to minority status for a generation.