You could fit the number of Republicans who were out on the town the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration around a single dining room table.
There were about fifteen of them, all white males, plus a few spouses. The venue was the Caucus Room, an expense-account steakhouse halfway between the White House and the Capitol. A seething winter chill was the least of their discomforts that evening. Nearly a half-million people had begun to congregate on the National Mall on Sunday, January 18, 2009—two days before the inauguration. By the time Obama was sworn in on Tuesday, the number had reached 1.8 million. The nation’s capital had never hosted a crowd that large, not for any reason. Definitely not for the previous president, George W. Bush, who had been jeered that afternoon as a helicopter whisked him off to Texas. Now the occupant of the White House was a Democrat. The House and Senate were controlled by Democrats. Barricades still lined the streets outside, as if at any moment the ruling party might engulf the Caucus Room and finish off what was left of the Republicans.
On such a night, it was a comfort to suffer among friends. Most of them—Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Pete Sessions, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Hoekstra, and Dan Lungren—were members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Five served in the Senate: Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl, Tom Coburn, John Ensign, and Bob Corker. The other three invitees were conservative journalist Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, former House Speaker (and future presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich, and communications specialist Frank Luntz. Most of them had attended the inauguration. That astounding vista of humanity on the Mall would haunt them more than last November’s electoral margins. McCarthy, a California congressman who had thus far served only a single term in the House, had made a game effort of viewing the event for the historic moment it was. He’d procured Obama’s autograph and even that of Obama’s sister. As the unworldly progeny of the Bakersfield working class, Kevin McCarthy had been dazzled to be included in such a tableau. As a Republican, he and the others in the room were devastated.
Luntz had organized the dinner—telling the invitees, “You’ll have nothing to do that night, and right now we don’t matter anyway, so let’s all be irrelevant together.” He had selected these men because they were among the Republican Party’s most energetic thinkers—and because they all got along with Luntz, who could be difficult. Three times during the 2008 election cycle, Sean Hannity had thrown him off the set at Fox Studios. The top Republican in the House, Minority Leader John Boehner, had nurtured a dislike of Luntz for more than a decade. No one had to ask why Boehner wasn’t at the Caucus Room that evening.
The dinner tables were set up in a square, at Luntz’s request, so that everyone could see each other and talk freely. He asked that Gingrich speak first. It was Newt, after all, who had pulled the Republicans out of a far deeper hole fourteen years ago, leading the GOP to a takeover of the House for the first time since 1955.
Gingrich was happy to oblige. Obama’s inaugural speech was impressive, the former Speaker said. The evocations of constitutional principles, pragmatism, and risk-taking—“those could have been our words.” Someone ought to laminate Obama’s speech and disseminate it, the better to hold the president accountable to his pledges.
Being competitors, however, they did not dwell on Obama’s seeming invincibility. They’d been thrashed, it was roundly agreed, because they had it coming. They ended up chucking their own principles and standing for nothing. They’d spent the last eight years defending policies they never should have signed on to in the first place. They’d lost their way.
“We got obsessed with governing,” Ensign said—adding with distaste, “making sure the trains run on time. Well, what if the train is heading towards the cliff?”
They picked at their salads and drank their wine and tried not to think about the thousands now dancing at the ten inaugural balls that the new president and his wife would be attending before the night was through.
Luntz was secretly overjoyed. When had Republicans in a group setting ever acknowledged how badly they had blown it? When had they ever recognized that they had become part of the problem rather than the solution? Maybe they don’t see how big this is, he thought.
“So we’re in the depths,” said Pete Hoekstra, who as a freshman in January 1993 had attended Bill Clinton’s swearing-in and had seen the GOP survive that particular downer. “The discussion we’re having tonight about President Obama, and where our party is, is no different than the discussion I came into as a freshman—except that it was even worse.”
Laughing, Hoekstra reminded them, “We’d been a minority party for forty years! And two short years later”—Hoekstra gestured to Gingrich, the field general of the 1994 revolution—“it’s a whole new world.”
How to regain that whole new world—that was now the question.
The men in the room were, behaviorally speaking, Washingtonians. Unlike ordinary Americans, they lived by a biennial calendar, the rhythms of their lives propelled by the electoral cycle as insistently as the migratory and mating habits of winged creatures. What their party had done from 1994 to 2000, and what the Democrats had then done from 2006 to 2008, the Republicans would once again do. They would take back the House in November 2010. They would use the House as the Republicans’ spear point to mortally wound President Obama in 2011. Then they would retake the White House and the Senate in 2012.
They would do all this, but only if the American voter blessed them to do so.
It made no sense, they all agreed, to attack Obama personally. The man was too popular.
“It’s got to be about ideas,” said Eric Cantor, the House minority whip, in his honeyed Virginia drawl. The Democrats now controlled everything and were already, with a monstrously priced economic stimulus package, showing their true colors. Give them time—they would screw things up, just as the GOP had.
“But everyone’s got to stick together,” said Paul Ryan, a thirty-eight-year-old Wisconsin congressman and numbers fetishist whose shiny earnestness recalled an Ozzie and Harriet America. Ryan hated squabbling amongst conservatives—the paleos versus the neos, the socials against the moderates, on and on for as long as he’d been on the Hill, which was all of his adult life. Ryan had long sought to be the GOP’s glue, pleading for adherence to the principles and the data. At times he looked like the underfed, hollow-eyed child of alcoholic parents.
“The only way we’ll succeed is if we’re united,” Ryan told the others. “If we tear ourselves apart, we’re finished.” But, he added, he liked what he was hearing now. Everyone at the table sounded like a genuine conservative. It was a place to start.
“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” said Kevin McCarthy. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
Luntz viewed McCarthy as one of the Republican Party’s emerging stars: an easygoing, unthreatening guy who understood that language and appearance mattered at least as much as substance. Nonetheless, the pollster and media guru interjected a cautionary note. “One of the worst political performances I’ve ever seen,” he said, “was when the Democrats took over the House in 2007 and Nancy Pelosi shut out the Republicans. And everybody whined about it. If any of you behave that way, I’ll go on TV and hold you accountable! If you’re whiners, you’re losers!”
Luntz tended to get carried away, but everyone knew he had a point.
Senator Jon Kyl began to focus on immediate tactics. He pointed out that Tim Geithner, Obama’s nominee to be secretary of the Treasury, had failed to pay his Social Security and Medicare taxes during his three-year employment at the International Monetary Fund. Kyl sat on the Senate Finance Committee, which would be conducting Geithner’s confirmation hearings the next morning. The Arizona senator intended to go after the nominee. “I’d like to hear your thoughts on the approach I should take,” he said to the others.
There was a pattern here, Gingrich pointed out. Charlie Rangel, the new House Ways and Means chairman, hadn’t paid taxes on his rental property income in more than two decades. Rangel and Geithner would be wielding more power over how taxpayer dollars would be spent than anyone else in America—and yet these guys couldn’t even be trusted to pay their own taxes?
“And there’s a web,” chimed in McCarthy. “There are freshmen who accepted campaign money from Rangel. They’re caught in the web.” McCarthy suggested that they waste no time smacking the new Democrats with attack ads.
The dinner lasted nearly four hours. They parted company almost giddily. The Republicans had agreed on a way forward:
Go after Geithner. (And indeed Kyl did, the next day: “Would you answer my question rather than dancing around it—please?”)
Show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies. (Eight days later, Minority Whip Cantor would hold the House Republicans to a unanimous No against Obama’s economic stimulus plan.)
Begin attacking vulnerable Democrats on the airwaves. (The first National Republican Congressional Committee attack ads would run in less than two months.)
Win the spear point of the House in 2010. Jab Obama relentlessly in 2011. Win the White House and the Senate in 2012.
“You will remember this day,” Newt Gingrich proclaimed to the others as they said goodbye. “You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”
Forgotten, or at least not discussed that night in the Caucus Room, was what had been sown in America by January 20, 2009.
On that evening, while the ruling party celebrated in tuxedos and the minority party retrenched over steaks and red wine, the U.S. unemployment rate climbed to 7.6 percent, the highest such indicator of national misery in eighteen years. Things would get much worse. Joblessness in America would exceed 8 percent the following month. By May 2009, the number would climb to 9.4 percent, and by October to 10.2 percent. The avalanche of the financial markets during the summer of 2008, and the global recession it triggered, had dealt America a battering that the Bureau of Labor Statistics would be at pains to capture in its bloodless data. Coming seven years after the existential blow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American condition of 2009 could not be adequately characterized as “the worst recession since the Great Depression.” In a much deeper, more encompassing sense, the country was at a loss.
America had been at a loss 220 years before, in the spring of 1789, when sixty-five men arrived by ship and stagecoach to the reeking, war-ravaged streets of New York City to convene the First Federal Congress. Taking up business on the lower floor of Federal Hall, the House of Representatives threw open its doors to the public on April 9 (unlike the Senate upstairs, which tended to its affairs privately for another six years), thereupon securing its reputation as the People’s Institution.
The commoners and journalists packing the public gallery of Federal Hall noisily munched on peanuts while bearing witness to America’s unsteady embrace of republican democracy. Among the House’s stars in 1789 were James Madison of Virginia, the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; and, somewhat less famously, thirty-year-old Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, the House’s first great orator, who crafted the final language of the First Amendment. But, as Ames wrote of his colleagues in 1789, “There are few shining geniuses.” It was instead, Ames noted, a body of “sober, solid, old-charter folks”—parochial, at times shortsighted and short-tempered, prone to grandstanding and with one eye cocked to the next election. Ames would himself later confess to becoming “crazed with the chase” of political adrenaline, but he was not the only ambitious soul among the class of 1789: nine of the first congressmen would later ascend to the Senate, while Madison would serve as the nation’s fourth president and Elbridge Gerry as his vice president.
And yet, with ample reason to put their own interests before those of a nation in its infancy, the sixty-five men of the First Federal Congress—northerners and southerners, Federalists and Anti-Federalists—found it within themselves to cohere as a body of statesmen and thereby give America its structural and social coherency. During the spring and summer of 1789, the House of Representatives would lay the foundations for a federal government. After first standing up an executive branch and inaugurating George Washington as America’s first president, they established a Treasury Department and a federal bank. They tended to the nation’s war debt by levying taxes. They instituted a federal judiciary. They accepted Vermont and Kentucky into the union. And, to round off the House of Representatives’ maiden legislative session, they passed the Bill of Rights.
This was the story of the House, back in the day when elected leaders elected to lead.
Two hundred and twenty-two years later, a very different kind of story of the People’s Institution would unfold from the deliberations of the men gathered that evening in the Caucus Room. The story of this House, the 112th Congress, the People’s Institution in its super-evolved state, may be seen as a parable of how democracy works in a nation beset by postmodern paradoxes—at times purposeful, at other times as boisterously inconsequential as an episode of Seinfeld, and at nearly all times infuriating even to its members . . . a tale of many things, but not necessarily one of statesmanship.
The protagonists of this story are a few of the 435 American men and women on both sides of the aisle who love their country and who showed up to the Capitol with every intention of leading, or at least serving, the people who voted them into office. What in fact transpired was an outcome the men in the Caucus Room—also patriots, many of them widely admired public servants—only partly anticipated. Their schemings helped to produce a House that appeared to spring directly from the impulses of an outraged public; a House of passionately iconoclastic newcomers, some of them proudly oblivious to political fallout and others so hyperreactive to their constituents that they followed their Twitter feeds on their iPads while sitting in the House chamber during votes; a House that made an elaborate show of openness and of speedily fulfilling its campaign pledges; a House that, for the first time ever, scheduled half of its workdays away from insular Washington, so that its members would be maximally hot-wired to feedback from the home folks; a House unabashedly grasping for the throwback luster of James Madison and Fisher Ames, to the point of spending much of its first full day reciting aloud the entire U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights on the House floor. This was a House of clearly spelled out principles, and of considerable clout. Fulfilling the wildest hopes of the men in the Caucus Room, the Republican-controlled House passed hundreds of bills, threw the Obama White House squarely on the ropes, and dominated a jillion news cycles. In Beltway parlance, the House controlled the narrative.
But who controlled the House? Not its traditional leader, the Speaker. Rather, it was the Tea Party—a movement to some, a moment to (wishful-thinking) others, leaderless and ill-defined and continually under-estimated—that called the shots for the 112th Congress’s Republican majority by demanding that it never compromise on conservative principles. Predictably, establishment Washingtonians didn’t think much of the Tea Party. They viewed it as an electoral spasm, a passing political fad, and as evidence they noted that only a small fraction of 2010’s eighty-seven “Tea Party freshmen” had subsequently joined the Tea Party Caucus founded by proto–tea partier Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. This was missing the point: the House Republicans, and not just the freshmen, knew all too well who had voted them into power and who could just as readily vote them out. This knowledge was reflected in their rhetoric, in their legislation, in their votes, and in their aggressive disrespect toward the president. In every way that mattered, the 112th would go down in history as the Tea Party Congress.
Not by coincidence, the 112th would also prove historic by its approval rating of 9 percent, a depth of loathing for that institution never before seen in the history of public opinion polling—a contempt eclipsing that for car salesmen, revenue collectors, the news media, and the president. This public disgust, principally aimed at the majority party but in no way acquitting the Democrats (especially the Democratic-controlled Senate), plainly bespoke a yearning for the lost art of governance. It was as if Americans, having long forgotten what political leadership looks like, saw in today’s House of Representatives an unambiguous portrait of what leadership precisely is not.
Yet something deeper is being expressed when a democracy reserves its greatest hostility toward the elected representatives who most acutely reflect the public mood. Perhaps Americans can no longer decide what it is that they want. Or perhaps—after being bombarded by the Internet, agitated by cable news and talk radio, bifurcated by redistricting maps, and dispirited by homegrown preoccupations—the outcry is in fact simple and plaintive: a plea for one America again.
Instead: You will remember this day. You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.
When Newt Gingrich spoke those departing words at the Caucus Room, the others traded looks of doubt. On January 20, 2009, hope was in the air, but the fifteen Republicans were not yet feeling it. They stepped out into the cold. It was nearly midnight, and the other side was still out dancing.