Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was blunt. He flatly told the National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” But for McConnell and company, leaders of the mainstream GOP and Tea Party insurgents alike, to get their wish, two things had to—have to—happen.
First, the economy has to take a complete nosedive in the final two years of Obama’s first term. The maxim “it’s still the economy, stupid,” trumps every other issue and concern with voters. In fact, exit polls on Nov. 2 showed that it was jitters over the economy and frustration that Democrats don’t seem to be getting a handle on the economic woes that spelled doom for the party. But no one can tell where things will stand with the economy in the next two years. So that issue is still very problematic in terms of predicting the 2012 presidential race.
Unfortunately for the president, and much to McConnell’s glee, the second requirement for the GOP to have a chance at knocking off Obama in 2012 was to grab back Congress, and that always meant only one thing—the House. The Senate was never crucial. All the GOP needed was to bump up its numbers in that chamber, and with the collegial, clubby, arcane rules of the Senate, a few more Republicans there will be all that’s needed to stymie key administration legislation and initiatives.
A GOP-run House, though, is a much different animal, especially one with a pack of new, Tea Party–backed House members. The GOP/Tea Party crowd has never bothered to pay lip service to the standard talk of cooperation, working together, and bipartisanship that usually accompanies the end of an election. They will stall, dodge, and effectively check any initiative and bill that President Obama proposes. The GOP will turn around and try to paint the administration as hostile, confrontational, ineffectual, and a promoter of gridlock.
GOP leaders concocted a masterful strategy to grab the House. The ploy was this: appear statesmanlike, pragmatic and thoughtful. That meant playing down the GOP’s stock inflammatory wedge issues of abortion and gay marriage. At the same time, they had to try not to look like they were capitalizing on fringe issues, such as the short-lived battle over the “Ground Zero Mosque” and Obama’s birth certificate and religion. They had scotch any talk of repealing the 14th Amendment and avoid openly renewing the battle over health care reform. Then had to play relentlessly to the two major fears and concerns of Americans: the economy and government spending. In the process, they had to stress openness and flexibility. This made it appear that the GOP was prepared to take the political and principled high ground and shed the image of itself and Congress as a deal-making, clubby, disconnected, alien presence that a majority of Americans now hold in contempt.
Next, they had to clean up the GOP’s horrible image as a party that let its House members run wild and engage in influence-peddling, campaign pay-offs, tax cheating and bribery. Cue the solemn pledges to be vigilant and hawk-like in policing Congress and to crack down on ethics violations by Democrat and Republican lawmakers alike.
GOP leaders also remember what happened they took back the House in 1994. They were roundly assailed for doing everything they could to shut down government by blocking then President Bill Clinton’s spending programs. Those tactics backfired. Democrats hammered House Speaker Newt Gingrich as petty, vindictive and hurtful to the country for orchestrating the House budget standoff with Clinton. The odor and backlash to the gOP’s actions almost certainly contributed to Clinton’s re-election in November 1996.
In short, the goal was this: Craft a moderate, conservative blueprint for change that casts GOP leaders as wise, visionary, and defenders of the public pocketbook. The hope, of course, was to prod the base to turn out in big enough numbers to swing potential cliff-hanging races to GOP candidates and incumbents. GOP strategists were careful not to say and do anything to raise warning flags that a GOP-run House would be mean-spirited, extremist and hateful of Obama. That would have simply stacked up more ammunition for Obama and the Democrats to blast the GOP as unfit to lead.
GOP congressional leaders tested parts of the strategy by keeping strict silence on the mosque flap and the 14th Amendment controversy. They focused their campaign prep talks on the economy. In the end, the GOP banked that public anger and disgust at the Democrats, the dropping approval numbers for Obama, the traditional gains the party out of power makes in mid\term elections, and the stagnating economy were enough to make voters see the GOP as the sensible alternative to an allegedly profligate spending, ethically challenged, much-too-liberal House and Obama administration that’s way out of touch with American voters.
Sadly, the GOP plan came off perfectly. Now begins the second part of the war to make Obama a one-term president.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is political commentator with New America Media and other media outlets.