It is possible that President Barack Obama genuinely believes in reaching out to Republicans or perhaps he is just going through the motions because he knows the American people favor bipartisanship. But he can no longer harbor any real hope that his overtures to the GOP will bring significant votes for his policies.
On Wednesday, when the House voted on the $819 billion stimulus bill, which many economists say is vital for the United States to avoid a possible depression, not a single Republican supported the legislation.
The Democrats had to provide all the 244 votes that sent the package over to the Senate, where leading Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have already announced their determination to fight the bill.
Sure there are weaknesses in the House version – in part because Obama had Democrats shelve some direct spending on the nation’s creaky infrastructure in favor of putting in $275 billion in tax cuts designed to win over some Republican votes.
Still, the bill was picked at by House Republicans who complained about some features, like repairs to the National Mall and family-planning money. So Obama pressured Democrats to remove those criticized items. Still the Republican caucus voted unanimously against the bill.
This solid phalanx of GOP opposition is now the latest -- and clearest -- evidence that the national Republicans have settled on a strategy similar to the one the party followed after Bill Clinton took office in 1993, when the Democrats also held majorities in the House and Senate. The Republicans sought to strangle the young Democratic administration in the cradle.
Clinton, too, made gestures of bipartisanship. He helped sweep several Reagan-Bush scandals under the rug just like Obama has been signaling that he will look forward, not backwards, about George W. Bush’s abuses. But the Republicans and their right-wing media allies responded with an all-out war on Clinton and his mildly reformist agenda. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Much like Wednesday’s unanimous GOP vote against Obama’s stimulus package, the Republicans in 1993 denied Clinton even one vote for his first budget because it contained some tax increases (which later were credited with bringing the U.S. budget nearly into balance and helping set the stage for a broad economic expansion).
Like today, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh took the lead in rallying Republicans into unrelenting opposition to the Democratic administration. Day in and day out, Limbaugh regaled his huge audience with three hours of mocking attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton, just like today when he has announced his desire for Obama to fail.
Regarding Clinton, the Republicans stirred up harshly partisan investigations. In early 1994, the Republicans succeeded in getting a GOP special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, appointed to investigate Clinton’s past financial dealings. Other investigations, also under the control of right-wing prosecutors, took aim at key members of Clinton’s staff.
In February 1994, when I covered the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – a kind of trade show for the Right – I was stunned by the volume of hate-Clinton paraphernalia. Never had I seen anything like this well-organized, well-funded determination to destroy a political figure.
As 1994 wore on, the Republicans harassed, undermined and ultimately killed Hillary Clinton’s plan for universal health care.
By November 1994, a resurgent Republican Party – energized by its hatred of the Clintons – wrested control of Congress from the Democrats. Limbaugh’s role was viewed as so important that he was made an honorary member of the new House Republican majority.
After those congressional victories, Republicans intensified their assaults on Clinton. Starr expanded his investigation into Clinton’s clumsy efforts to cover up an extramarital affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In late 1998, the Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton, though the President mustered enough Democratic votes to survive a trial in the Senate.
Though the Republicans failed to drive Clinton from the White House, the impeachment battle set the stage for George W. Bush’s run for President behind the promise that he would restore “honor and dignity” to the White House.
During Campaign 2000, Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore became a kind of whipping boy for Clinton’s enemies both in the political world and in the press. Gore still clawed his way to a narrow popular-vote victory in November 2000, but the race was close enough for five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court to deliver the White House to Bush.
Then, despite Bush’s promises to be “a uniter, not a divider,” he interpreted his tainted victory as a mandate to push through a right-wing agenda that included steep tax cuts weighted in favor of the wealthiest Americans, widening the deficit that had been virtually eliminated under Clinton.
Dov. S. Zakheim, a foreign policy adviser to Bush’s 2000 campaign and a Pentagon official during his first term, later admitted in a Washington Post opinion article that Bush dropped his “compassionate conservative” mask soon after taking office.
“We came to a bitterly divided Washington and poured salt on partisan wounds, culminating in an ugly divide-and-rule style of politics,” Zakheim acknowledged.
After the 9/11 attacks, when Democrats and many other Americans swore off partisanship in the cause of national unity, Bush seized the moment to arrogate unprecedented powers to himself. Then, in fall 2002, he exploited America’s fear and anger to push through a pre-election Iraq War authorization and still branded the Democrats as soft on terror.
Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who had lost three limbs in the Vietnam War, was defeated after being virtually equated with terrorist Osama bin Laden.
By 2004, Bush and his political guru Karl Rove had set their sights on a “permanent Republican majority” that would relegate the Democrats to a cosmetic appendage to the GOP’s one-party state. Republicans would control all levers of government power, including federal prosecutors and the federal courts, and would be backed by an intimidating right-wing news media.
Under Bush, the only freedom that seemed left to many Americans was the freedom to follow him. If you didn’t, you’d be labeled unpatriotic or un-American. You might even face career punishment and physical threats, like those meted out to the Dixie Chicks for daring to criticize Bush at a pre-Iraq-invasion concert.
Similarly, anyone who threatened Republican electoral dominance got a steady does of smears, like the Swift Boat attacks on Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism. At Bush’s 2004 convention, some GOP delegates wore Purple Heart Band-Aids to mock the severity of Kerry’s war wounds.
After Election 2004, with Bush gaining a second term and the Republicans again owning both houses of Congress, Rove ally Grover Norquist mused that Democrats should learn to get along in Washington by becoming like castrated pets to their Republican masters.
Sometimes when Republicans faced reversals, as they did in Election 2006, they revived some talk of bipartisanship because the American people had grown tired of the political bickering.
Yet, even if some Republicans genuinely wanted a more bipartisan approach, such a change seemed impossible – after decades of exploiting "wedge" tactics and relying on a right-wing media built to destroy opponents.
In recent years, when Republicans talked about repudiating “partisan rancor” – like John McCain did at the 2008 Republican National Convention – the rhetoric was usually followed by another binge of partisan rancor, like Sarah Palin’s attacks on Obama for “palling around with terrorists” or McCain’s own smearing of Obama as a “socialist.”
As I have written before, the idea of transforming modern Republicanism into some less partisan form may be like trying to train a boa constrictor which fork to use at the dinner table.
Beyond the fact that today’s Republican congressional caucus has fewer moderates than ever before, there’s also the influence of the powerful right-wing media that runs on the high-octane fuel of anti-liberal hate. This machinery now faces a business imperative to find attack lines that can be used to tear down Obama and build up audience share.
For instance, on Jan. 16, four days before Obama’s Inauguration, Limbaugh was publicly rooting for Obama to fall on his face. “I hope he fails,” Limbaugh bluntly declared.
A day after the Inauguration, Limbaugh expanded on his anti-Obama views.
“You know racism in this country is the exclusive problems of the Left,” Limbaugh said. “We're witnessing racism all this week that led up to the Inauguration. We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black President.”
In other words, Limbaugh is appealing to his largely white, male audience to see itself as the victim of some “reverse racism,” with the graphic image of white men bent over being subjected to sexual humiliation – and presumably anal rape – by a black man.
Despite these growing signs of Republican obstructionism and sabotage, Obama continued to pursue his goal of a post-partisan Washington. His first post-Inaugural trip to Capitol Hill on Jan. 27 involved meetings with House and Senate Republicans, not Democrats.
Already, Obama had devoted about one-third of the stimulus package to tax cuts aimed at winning over some Republican votes. He weathered Democratic complaints that the tax cuts prevented additional spending on the nation’s infrastructure, a strategy that many economists say would generate more jobs and provide longer-term value to the nation.
Despite his concessions, Obama ended up getting whip-sawed by Republicans who complained that the tax cuts weren’t big enough and, ironically, some joined in castigating him for shorting the infrastructure spending. In the end, his personal appeals and his deletions of some items opposed by Republicans still failed to secure a single Republican vote for the House bill.
So, in a replay of 1993, the Republicans made clear with their unanimous vote against the stimulus bill that they – like Rush Limbaugh – are determined to see the new President fail.
Now, the question is whether Obama will give up his quixotic bid to woo Republicans – and instead support a stimulus package that will do the most to help the country – or whether he will continue making more concessions to the Republicans in hopes that they will undergo a sudden transformation.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on January 29, 2009.