Clift: The House GOP"s Risky Strategy

Have the Republicans no shame? After swarming around President Obama like adolescent girls swooning over the Jonas brothers, getting their picture taken with him and accepting his invitation to a White House cocktail party, every Republican in the House still voted like Rush Limbaugh instructed them to—registering a big fat "no" on Obama's stimulus plan. It was their way to signal solidarity with the GOP base and its talk-show mouthpieces. But stiffing a popular president in the middle of an economic crisis risks further marginalizing a party already on the ropes.

This is a multi-act drama and the House vote is only Act I, Scene 1. Republicans are basking in the glow of praise from conservative editorialists for standing together to oppose a mostly Democratic initiative to rescue the country from financial ruin. They're betting on the failure of the stimulus package to revive the economy and the public having short memories if they turn out to be wrong. Republicans in the House represent safe districts that withstood Democratic gains in '06 and '08, and there's enough in the $825 billion package to ridicule as pork-barrel spending to give them political cover with their constituents.

Obama's charm offensive couldn't dislodge a single GOP vote. For a politician who has preached bipartisanship since he first burst onto the political scene, the story line this week sounds ominous. But Obama shrugged off the defeat saying, "Old habits die hard." He's a patient man and enough of a scholar of congressional dynamics to understand the bipartisanship he campaigned on is only a momentary casualty. Some of the House Republicans who voted no on Thursday may change their mind when the bill returns from the Senate in a slightly modified form. They'll soon be saying, "I voted against it before I voted for it."

Even so, Republicans are less cowed by Obama than they were even a week ago. "They took the king's shilling and didn't spend it on the king's program," says William Galston, who studies political polarization as a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Republicans are rejoicing over their newfound solidarity, but you wonder what data points they're consulting when tens of thousands more Americans lose their jobs each week and polls show the public wants Congress to act. Obama made a long-term investment in civility by reaching out to Republicans, and if they reject his outstretched hand, they are consigning themselves to irrelevancy. He is putting his presidency on the line in the same way Bill Clinton did when he pushed through a tax increase in the first year of his presidency without any Republican support.

Obama is on track to sign a massive spending bill into law by President's Day in mid-February. It took Clinton until August before he could extract a bill from Congress increasing taxes on the top 1 percent of earners in an effort to reduce a growing deficit. The Clinton bill would later be credited with setting the stage for a balanced budget. Galston was a domestic policy advisor in the Clinton White House and recalls that Clinton, too, tried to work with Republicans. The concessions he made to win their support antagonized his own party and failed to bring any Republican converts. Clinton's deficit reduction bill passed by one vote in the House and Senate, without any Republican support.

Republicans chanted "Bye Bye Marjorie" as Pennsylvania Rep. Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky walked down the aisle to cast the 216th vote knowing she would likely be defeated in her suburban Philadelphia district for her pro-tax vote; she did, in fact, go down to defeat. Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, the 50th Democrat in the Senate, resisted Clinton's entreaties as long as he could, even wandering off to a movie, "What's Love Got to Do With It," before finally surrendering to Clinton's argument that his presidency hinged on winning the vote. Vice President Al Gore broke the tie in the Senate, giving Clinton a victory so costly in terms of his political capital that it seemed more like a setback.

Democrats with long memories might draw from the Clinton experience the conclusion that whatever concessions they make to the Republicans, they'll never be enough. Republicans are settled into their bunker mentality. That's the wrong conclusion, says Galston, recalling that Clinton got a lot accomplished with congressional Republicans later in his term. But those bipartisan victories on welfare reform and a balanced budget occurred only after the two sides had been bloodied. Clinton lost the Congress and a government shutdown forced by the GOP majority left the Republicans reeling.

Clinton initially had 58 Democrats in the Senate and 258 in the House, numbers roughly the same as today's 59 Democrats in the Senate and 255 in the House. But Obama is in a much stronger position. Clinton was a plurality president, having failed to win 50 percent of the vote. Every Democrat had run ahead of him and they weren't impressed. Presidents come and go, but Democratic majorities are forever. Today's Democrats know better. Early victories are important to maintain momentum. Even the Republicans could drink to that.