A Disloyal Opposition

Posted on January 22, 2013

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I believe the inauguration of Barak Obama to his second term as President of the United States is a fitting end to a rather nasty episode in American history. Whether you approve of the president or not, his reelection represents, in one respect at least, a triumph for the American people over the worst type of political cynicism and opportunism. It marks the final defeat of a secret plan hatched at the start of his first term that was designed to insure that a second term never happened, no matter the cost to the nation.

Obama inauguration 2009

Inauguration Day, 2009

On the very day of Mr. Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, a group of influential political leaders gathered at a Washington restaurant to discuss how they should respond to the new president’s election. A detailed account of the proceedings at that dinner, and the plan that was devised to make this a failed presidency, is given by Robert Draper in his book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the US House of Representatives.

A Master Plan of Obstruction

Here is how several news organizations reported what happened at that meeting:

On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, a group of top GOP luminaries quietly gathered in a Washington steakhouse to lick their wounds and ultimately create the outline of a plan for how to deal with the incoming administration. After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything. The new president had no idea what the Republicans were planning.

PBS Frontline documentary, Inside Obama’s Presidency.

They plotted a campaign of obstruction against newly installed president Barack Obama. During a lengthy discussion, the senior GOP members worked out a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years to try to ensure he would not be re-elected.

The Guardian newspaper (Great Britain)

In other words, there was nothing President Obama could have done to build common ground with Republicans. From the beginning, the plan was to relentlessly obstruct Obama, regardless of whether that was good for the country.

Jamelle Bouie, staff writer at The American Prospect

conspirators aThere were 15 attendees at the meeting, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and future VP candidate, Congressman Paul Ryan. Also attending were Senators Tom Coburn, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, John Ensign and Jon Kyl. Former GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led the discussion. At the end of the meal the attendees were described as being almost giddy with excitement about the plan they had hashed out. Gingrich told them, “You will remember this day. You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the highest ranking Republican in the Senate, was not at the meeting. But he soon demonstrated that he was fully on board with the strategy that had been agreed to. In an interview with National Journal magazine, published October 23, 2010, Senator McConnell quite forthrightly affirmed that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He went on to repeat that statement on Fox News, saying, “That’s my single most important political goal, along with every active Republican in the country.”

road closedThe Plan In Action

From these reports, it is clear that the gridlock and obstructionism of the last four years were not an accident; they were the result of a carefully thought-out and relentlessly executed plan.

Think of the situation we faced on the day that now infamous meeting took place. It was President Obama’s very first day in office. The nation was fighting two extremely difficult wars abroad, and at home faced the crisis of an economy that was continuing to accelerate downward in what was already the worst recession since the Great Depression. Publicly, the leaders of the GOP proclaimed that their #1 priority was jobs, jobs, jobs for the American people. But in reality, their overriding goal was to deny the new president any victories that might enhance his prospects for reelection. Since a policy victory for the president must, by definition, be something the American people believed benefitted them, to deny the president that victory was to automatically deny the associated benefit to the nation. But that fact was not a consideration for the plotters.

To my mind, what those Republican leaders implemented was not the principled program of a loyal opposition, dedicated to doing its best for the nation even though not in power. It was instead the unprincipled plotting of a disloyal opposition, whose only thought was to secure partisan political advantage for themselves.

It Almost Succeeded

To me, the shameful thing is that they almost got away with it. The 2010 elections, in which Republicans were elected in droves and took back control of the House of Representatives, must have seemed a vindication of the plan. The electorate reacted exactly as the strategists had hoped, blaming the party in power for the apparent lack of progress, and rewarding the unseen plotters for their intransigence. But by 2012 the unseen hand of obstruction was no longer quite so unseen, and the carefully crafted plan to destroy any chance of the President being reelected fell apart.

Either Party Might Have Done It

elephant and donkeyThe perpetrators of this outrage on the nation happened, this time, to be Republicans. I am confident that had the roles been reversed, and an out-of-power Democratic leadership group had seen the same opportunity, they would have been as quick to seize it as the Republicans were. It’s not about party affiliation. But it is very much about the personal ethics of the politicians involved. And neither party has a monopoly on ethical – or unethical – behavior.

Was This Just Politics?

But should we dismiss this episode as just politics as usual? I don’t think so. Americans don’t elect their presidents in the hope that they will fail so badly they cannot be reelected. They fully understand that the failure of a president necessarily involves failure for the nation. Had they been aware of, and had a real understanding of the plot hatched as the new president was being inaugurated, the majority of Americans would have been outraged. In a very real sense, the plan the plotters came up with that Inauguration Day in 2009 was fundamentally un-American. It was, in my view, disreputable and dishonest, and those involved in it should be ashamed of themselves.

Is It Over With?

I hope the plan is dead. I hope none of the men who were so giddy four years ago at the prospect of building a united front of obstruction to anything the president might propose or support (even, as it turned out, to policies they themselves had initiated) still think that is a viable path to power for their party. I hope this new presidential term will see a reawakening of a collaborative spirit and a genuinely loyal opposition. That’s what I hope.

That’s what I pray.

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