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The Party of No

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It would have been hard to predict, as the stimulus debate began, that President Obama would end up losing more Democratic votes than gaining Republican ones. More than twice as many, actually: Seven House Democrats voted against the measure, three Senate Republicans for it.

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The lopsided outcome was what passes for a victory these days among Republicans. It was a morale booster for a party reeling from the election.

But the stimulus vote will, I suspect, turn out to be the high-water mark for Republican unity. The troops aren't apt to follow so obediently from now on. In any event, Democrats have proved that they can pick off enough Senate Republicans to get to 60 votes; that task will get easier if Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is seated.

Still, the ability of House Republicans to maintain their united front -- twice -- came as an unpleasant shock to the White House. Even after the first rebuff, the administration anticipated 20 to 30 Republican defections.

Instead, the vote demonstrated that everything you need to know about Congress you learned in middle school: Peer pressure works wonders. "The reaction against those of us who negotiated and endorsed the package is really harsh, to say the least, so I think that will deter others who are thinking about coming our way," Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins told me last week.

In one particularly vivid demonstration, Joseph Cao, the new Republican congressman from New Orleans, told reporters he was "leaning yes." Then, as Politico reported, "the party's chief deputy whip . . . stood near Cao during the entire vote" -- until, in the final minutes, he voted no.

This was, I suspect, bad for Cao, whose district is overwhelmingly Democratic, but good -- in the short term, anyway -- for his party. Republicans didn't win the stimulus debate, but they managed to deflate Obama's dream of bipartisan hand-holding, tarnish the stimulus as stuffed with lefty pork, and -- to borrow a phrase from the inauguration -- pick themselves up and dust themselves off.

"After the November elections the party was beat back and defenseless," GOP strategist Ed Rollins told me. "I think this allows them to stay unified and will help rebuild their financial base. They at least have a pulse."

As a matter of crass political calculation, most Republicans, especially given safe House seats, had more to gain than lose in opposing the stimulus. As one explained, if the measure works, relieved voters won't be inclined to punish Republicans; if it falters, Republicans get an "I told you so" moment. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2010 have as much to fear from primary challenges from the right as from Democratic opponents.

Indeed, rather than reviling the Senate defectors, Republicans should have thanked them for providing cover to oppose without consequences. "Those three Republicans actually did everybody a favor because, otherwise, Republicans would own the problem," former Virginia Republican representative Tom Davis said.

But the road ahead seems far more daunting for the GOP, and the stimulus debate illustrates the looming difficulty. Republicans did better jabbing at Democrats than conveying a positive case about what they would do instead. House Minority Leader John Boehner insisted that Republicans would not be the "party of no," but his proposed alternative gained no traction.

GOP pollster David Winston, who advises the House leadership, said Republicans were only starting to learn to be an effective opposition. "The party for so long has been so used to simply just attacking Democrats -- it's the way we approach campaigns," he said. Now, he added, it needs to figure out: "How do you effectively present the choice?"

Republicans managed to do that with offshore drilling last summer, but lifting the drilling ban was a common-sense proposal when gas was $4 a gallon. They had less luck coming up with such an easy-to-grasp alternative in the stimulus battle. "For whatever reason, this time that choice wasn't clear, and it didn't get the coverage," Winston said.

Against a fully functioning White House, facing complex issues such as financial regulation or health care, it's much harder for the minority to make an affirmative case -- and stick together. For the Caos of the world, self-preservation will end up trumping party unity; there are only so many times the leadership can press vulnerable members to take one for the party, especially if the chasm between the president's approval ratings and those of congressional Republicans remains anywhere near as vast as now.

The numbers dictated that Republicans would lose on the stimulus vote. In a few months, they could be looking back on these as the good old days.

marcusr@washpost.com


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