Two years later, GOP is phoenix rising

AP News
Posted: Oct 29, 2010 2:58 PM
Two years later, GOP is phoenix rising

It wasn't so long ago that the Republican Party was in shambles, and Barack Obama's throngs filled the November air with chants of "Yes we can!"

"Change has come to America," he proclaimed on a night of triumph in Chicago in 2008, then set out with large Democratic majorities in Congress to make it so.

Cut forward two years and 4.8 million lost jobs. Now it's the Republicans on the brink of victory. Obama maneuvers in cramped political confines, undertaking one political salvage mission after another in the final hours of a campaign utterly unlike the last.

It has been a tumultuous journey from Obama's "Yes we can" to House Republican Leader John Boehner's "Hell no" rant against the giant health care bill.


January 2009: the economy in crisis, Obama and his allies in Congress took office.

Out of the gate, they produced an $814 billion economic stimulus bill. Later, they aggressively pursued and won enactment of historic health care legislation, but the bruising fight exposed rifts inside the party. Then came the bill to tame Wall Street. The out-of-power GOP stood virtually in lockstep against Obama's ambitious agenda, calculating that no political honeymoon could survive rising joblessness, home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies.

Auto bailouts. The stimulus. Health care. More money. More debt. More government. "But where are the jobs?" Boehner asked repeatedly.

Outraged, a grass-roots conservative-libertarian network _ dubbed the tea party _ emerged in opposition to Obama's policies, fed up with Washington and anything, it seemed, associated with the party establishments. And disillusionment brewed among liberals who thought the president's policies didn't go far enough.

Those emotions were on full display during acerbic health care town halls that summer. The tone spilled onto the House floor when Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina interrupted Obama's health care speech to lawmakers, shouting "You lie!."

America was still a restive nation.

Only this time, it was the Democrats who were in charge and who stood to be punished. And it was Republicans who stood to benefit and who were ready to take advantage _ even as the GOP was going through its own convulsions.


On Oct. 31, 2009, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.1 percent, and it's barely receeded.

"It eclipses almost everything," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says now, her majority at risk.

The first clear indication that the public's attitudes had dramatically changed _ and that trouble lay ahead for Democrats _ came a year ago. Voters itching for change elected Republicans as governor in Virginia and New Jersey, two states that Obama had won and that Democrats had led.

In a sign of the challenges 2010 would hold, independents who had carried Obama and Democrats to victory in back-to-back elections now swung behind Republicans. Obama's diverse coalition of voters didn't show up, but conservatives did.

Republicans proved they could win statewide races by hammering Democrats on spending, blaming Washington and castigating Obama's policies. Democrats countered, capturing a GOP-held congressional seat in New York after the Republican candidate picked by the party establishment dropped out under pressure from conservatives.

That House race was the initial shot of a civil war over purity that would rage within the GOP for the next year.

Republicans like Ed Gillespie quietly set in motion a plan to try to capitalize on voter anger, an effort that would end up being a $36 million television ad campaign by two affiliated outside groups aimed at defeating Democrats in the House and Senate. These GOP veterans sought to compensate for what critics called an ineffective Republican National Committee under Chairman Michael Steele.


"It's going to be a hard November for Democrats," Howard Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman, predicted as 2010 dawned. "Our base is demoralized ... Washington is just not in touch ... and Republicans are unified against Democrats the way we were against them when Bush was president."

Then, the unthinkable.

Republican Scott Brown staged an extraordinary upset to win the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts.

"We can't win them all," Obama said ruefully, and the loss of a single seat robbed Democrats of their 60-vote Senate majority.

But more than that, it emboldened Republicans and sent shudders through the ranks of the party in power.

Democrats sustained another blow when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that corporations and unions could spend freely on advertisements advocating the victory or defeat of candidates at any point before elections. In its wake, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent $32 million on the midterms, most of it against Democrats


As winter gave way to spring, Democrats finally overcame the last, bitter Republican obstacle and dragged Obama's health care bill over the finish line.

It was a huge Obama victory, though Democrats worried about selling it to a divided public seemingly more concerned with jobs, the economy, budget deficits and climbing debt. Republicans tapped into the fury of Americans nationwide about how the bill was written.

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"Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability, without back-room deals and struck behind closed doors, hidden from the people? Hell, no you can't!" Boehner said that late March night in a rant on the House floor. "Have you read the bill? ... Hell, no you haven't!"

The White House popped champagne on the famous Truman Balcony, looking southward toward the Washington Monument. The staff celebrated the landmark legislation and stayed up well into the night celebrating.

Their jubilee would be short lived.

A month later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf, gushing oil from the ocean floor and further deepening the public's surly mood. It took months to stop the leak. An Associated Press-GfK poll showed that Americans had become just as dissatisfied with Obama's work on the Gulf oil spill as they had been with George W. Bush's handing of Hurricane Katrina.


The primaries began, bearing bad tidings for incumbents in unexpected places.

Republican Sen. Bob Bennett was swept aside in Utah. In Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist had once embraced Obama, Republicans abandoned him in droves, and he them, opting finally to run for the Senate as an independent.

Democrats gave Sen. Arlen Specter the boot in Pennsylvania and pushed Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a run-off in Arkansas.

Kentucky Republicans rejected another candidate hand-picked by party leaders, choosing tea party darling Rand Paul to be the state's GOP Senate nominee. And Nevada tea party supporters helped Sharron Angle topple a former state GOP chairwoman to challenge vulnerable Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.


Through summer and into fall, the economic doldrums persisted. A job-hungry public turned on Democrats. Obama's job performance rating was stuck under 50 percent nationally; it was lower in many states, limiting his campaign stops to urban areas in liberal states. Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton went where he couldn't.

"Republicans are on offense and Democrats are running for cover," Boehner boasted. "The Democrats are running from their own record."

True enough.

Instead, they cast Republicans as agents of the bad old days.

"They're offering more of the past but on steroids," Biden complained, boldly predicting that voters would reject a "Republican tea party" of extreme candidates and return Democrats to power.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects to show jobs lost between November 2008 and Updates with GOP calculation, national mood)