The word from the cautious, defensive Republican leadership meeting on Capitol Hill the day after the president’s health-care address was that no one in the GOP had ever seen anything like this. “He walked in and threatened us, a separate and equal branch of government” said one congressional Republican source. “He had a plan? That was the biggest myth of all. There’re just platitudes. Twelve years in the minority, two and a half in the majority, and they still don’t have any semblance of a plan. The president declared he was gonna fix health care forever. He tells us the details are left to be worked out. Everybody thought he was kidding. Telling a joke. But he wasn’t kidding. He didn’t understand it was a joke. The whole chamber laughed at him.”
Republicans “are seething,” one source said. “Joe Wilson isn’t the only Republican who thinks the president lied for forty-five minutes; he’s just the one who said it out loud.”
Surprisingly, the GOP leaders did not much debate among themselves whether a bill will be passed by the Democratic majority. Everyone assumes that something will be approved. “The president told Congress to send him a bill,” remarked a veteran legislator. “Any kind of bill, and he’ll sign it.” The GOP is so confident that a bill of some feather will be passed that it will not bother to oppose it adamantly, as Republicans did the stimulus bill last February. “We didn’t yell ‘kill it’,” remarked a legislator, not unsmilingly. “[House Minority Leader] John Boehner asked the members to read it and let the public read it before it was voted on. Just slow it down long enough to give Congress and America a chance to read it, unlike what happened when no one got to read the stimulus. Boehner and his team would just like people to read this one.”
Most of the conversation among the leaders Thursday was about how to profit from the coming turmoil after the bill is passed. The GOP did not lead the frantic town halls of August, because the party is not that organized or cunning. It watched and cheered and learned, however. And like a child who has seen the power of the ocean up close from the beach, the GOP knows that a wave is building—a wave that could sweep away everything in its path.
“The Democrats are in the mirror image of where we were in 2005,” said a Republican who has taken beatings for two cycles. “We had Club for Growth attacking our moderates back then, and now they have MoveOn attacking their moderates. We had our leaders jamming legislation without any Democrats, and now they have their leaders jamming the stimulus and cap and tax and healthcare without any Republicans.”
Another remembers Roy Blunt in 2006, then the Majority Whip, soothingly telling an anxious Republican Caucus that it might lose a few seats in the mid-term, but not the majority. “We knew we were in for it then”
The most astonishing detail of the leadership confab was that a stale, rude, impotent posse of whiners—the House and Senate Republican Conferences on the Hill and the zombies on TV—has suddenly discovered the word “resurrection” without doing much more than reclining in a mass grave for nine months. “It’s not just that Republicans are angry about the president’s speech,” one source said. “They are seething. Joe Wilson isn’t the only Republican who thinks the president lied for forty-five minutes. He’s just the one who said it out loud. It’s not going to cost a dime? He’s going to find $600 billion from where? There are how many uninsured? It was astonishing. We couldn’t believe it. The intensity has increased. Republicans have people who are angry and anxious and they just want to get to the midterm election ASAP.”
House and Senate members are still processing the president’s speech, and there will be many more facts to debate. For the moment, however, the important work for the GOP is to calm down and count the expanding congressional map for 2010. The still toxic Eveready Battery Bunny Karl Rove estimates that the Obamacare saga now places not only the 48 Democratic districts won by John McCain at risk but also an additional group won by George Bush in 2004, for a total of 70.
When asked about this scale, a Republican headcounter didn’t want to give a precise number. “We won’t win 70,” came the response, with a laugh. “There are swing seats, most of them Blue Dogs, getting worried in California, and that means what I told you before, that is the bellwether for a GOP wave.”
What I learned back during the heat of August, when the town halls first hit the news, was that the Republicans were not ready for talk of being rescued from their minority status for a few more cycles. They held to the conviction, despite the YouTube mania, that Democrats could not be seen as facing serious trouble unless the party was worried about seats in California. Now, that looks entirely possible.
Do the Republicans believe it is as good as they imagine it might look for them in 2010? Not really. They are working out worst-case scenarios, and the presumption right now is that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are geniuses who will figure out how to thread the needle on health care and buoy their party’s fortunes. They worry the Dems will start the bill in the Senate, where it will lose the public option mandate somehow, and replace it with a version of the wish lists of Max Baucus and Olympia Snowe. Then the Democrats will bring the measure to the House, where the Progressive Caucus will suddenly have a conversion experience and gratefully accept half a loaf in Utopia. What about the taxes? “They can do that in conference,” came the cynical answer. “Who knows? They’re capable of anything.”
The deeper irony here is that the GOP wants the president to get the health care bill on his desk to sign by year’s end or maybe in January for the State of the Union. The image that pleases the GOP is the White House filled with Democrats only—all with pens in their hands signing on to what the disgraced, demoralized, delusional Republican Party now believes is its salvation and Nancy Pelosi’s ticket to retirement.
What about Joe Wilson, the president’s heckler? One congressional Republican informant shrugged and recommended, “Facebook Joe Wilson. See what they’re saying. He is their hero. He is one of the most honest, mild-mannered patriots you’d ever want to meet. Heck, his kid fought in Iraq. He apologized for calling out the president during the speech. Yet, Joe’s words weren’t political, really. They were more like what you would hear at a revival meeting. He was so appalled by the president’s constant misrepresentations and outright lies that he instinctively called out Obama. The media wants Joe to be Tom DeLay. But Joe is what he appears to be. The caucus didn’t send out anything to the members about what to say. We all came to the same conclusion, every Republican. Yeah, where Joe said it was wrong. But not a Republican is saying that what he said is wrong.”
John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.