Democrats talked about the jobs to come from modernizing the electric grid, weatherizing homes, and repairing roads and bridges. Republicans too had ideas for reviving the economy, focusing on tax cuts and carefully targeted spending. But many in the GOP also wanted to talk about something else: sexually transmitted diseases.
As the House on Wednesday gave President Obama the first big legislative victory of his term, it was clear that his efforts so far had not delivered the post-partisan era that he called for in his inauguration address, when he proclaimed an end to the “petty grievances” and “worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
The fault lines of past ideological wars were in view during the fight over the $819-billion stimulus package, with shots coming from well-known conservative warriors such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Matt Drudge.
The familiar machinery of partisan politics, a fixture of the Clinton and Bush eras, kicked into operation undaunted as Republicans began running a TV advertisement in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, charging that his support for the stimulus bill was tantamount to “wasting our hard-earned money.”
In a series of news releases, GOP campaign operatives challenged Democrats on why a bill aimed at an economic crisis also contained money for education programs on sexually transmitted diseases -- a question posed all day atop the Drudge Report website that has for years helped conservatives drive their message.
And despite Obama’s high approval ratings and his efforts to court Republican support for the measure, the old tactics seemed to have some effect. Not a single Republican voted for the stimulus package, and even a few conservative Democrats and some freshmen took the risk of opposing a popular new president from their own party.
“It’s a very conservative district,” said one rookie Democrat, Rep. Walt Minnick, describing his Republican-leaning constituency in Idaho. Minnick, sitting in the still-undecorated House office that he moved into two weeks ago, said many people in his district listened to talk radio. “They listen to everybody, of course, and I’m influenced by them.”
The vote Wednesday, while clearly a victory for Obama, also marked a victory of sorts for Limbaugh and other conservative opinion leaders who have spent days admonishing Republican lawmakers not to be “co-opted” by the Democratic president. They said Obama was trying to bring Republicans aboard merely to spread the political risk of passing the massive bill, while also conspiring to use the stimulus package to fund a liberal agenda.
In the end, Republicans didn’t waver, choosing to use the vote to try to regain their old brand as the party of small government -- a brand they lost as spending ballooned during the Bush years.
It was a calculated risk at a time when polls show broad support for having the government take action to save the economy. But the nay votes from Republicans and a dozen conservative Democrats signal challenges for the president, who has made it clear since his decisive victory that he will not be satisfied with narrow, partisan victories that could be interpreted as more of the same old Washington.
Obama is attempting to mold his massive grass-roots campaign network into a force that can be called upon to pressure lawmakers to support his ideas, and to work against those who don’t.
That network is still in the planning stages. White House officials hope it will be active in time for battles over healthcare and energy, but Wednesday’s party-line vote showed that Obama, despite repeated meetings with GOP leaders, has not presented a compelling enough case for his ideological adversaries to fall in line.
The Democrats’ wide margin in the House, and the fact that the GOP caucus has been reduced to a collection of core conservatives representing the reddest Republican districts, diminished that challenge in the short run. But as he fights for future legislation, Obama will need support from a few Republicans in the Senate, and from some Democrats who represent conservative states -- and Limbaugh no doubt will flex his vocal cords again.
Conservative opposition to the stimulus bill began building over the weekend, with websites raising questions about provisions that would spend millions on putting sod on the National Mall and funding condoms for the poor. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) defended the contraceptive program, an unflattering photo, along with her comments, was splashed on the Drudge website.
Limbaugh said Republicans were at risk of voting for a big-government bill that was designed to keep Democrats in power for “as long as we live.”
The power of the conservative machinery was evident when Democrats agreed to remove the landscaping and contraceptive provisions.
Limbaugh’s influence among conservatives -- and his power to influence GOP lawmakers -- was on display Wednesday when a Republican congressman from Georgia apologized for comments critical of the talk radio host.
In the course of defending House leaders, Rep. Phil Gingrey had been quoted as saying that Limbaugh and other commentators were in an easy position that allowed them to “stand back and throw bricks,” and that they were “living well.”
Gingrey said he had received “a high volume” of complaints after his comments appeared in the publication Politico. In a statement on his congressional website, Gingrey said, “I see eye to eye with Rush Limbaugh” on conservative values. “I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended and upset my fellow conservatives.”
Minnick, the Idaho Democrat, said he voted against the bill because it contained unnecessary projects that would not necessarily create jobs. He said his office was receiving hundreds of calls, overwhelmingly from people opposed to the measure, though he added he would have opposed the bill even if a majority of his constituents disagreed with him.
Democrats familiar with White House strategy think many Republicans and conservative Democrats -- known as Blue Dogs -- will wind up voting for a later version of the stimulus plan as it moves through the legislative process, largely because mounting job losses will force them to avoid the obstructionist label.
White House officials also have sought to calm nerves among squeamish Democrats. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel met this week with leaders of the Blue Dog caucus, and he agreed to the lawmakers’ demands that the administration support enacting future budget restrictions to restrain debt spending.
The caucus, numbering about 50, consists of many members who won seats in the last two election cycles by defeating Republican incumbents. A new survey by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg of 40 of those congressional districts shows that, at the moment, Obama is popular. Greenberg said voters there supported the stimulus plan.
“Whatever doubts they have about the specifics, they want to give it a shot,” he said.
That’s how Rep. Steve Driehaus, a freshman Democrat from conservative southeast Ohio, sees it -- even as his constituents hear the drumbeat from critics.
“The noise machine will be the noise machine,” he said. “But I have to be responsible. I have to legislate. . . . Rush Limbaugh doesn’t concern me.”