For GOP, What’s Past Is Prologue

Posted October 2, 2009 at 7:03pm

For Capitol Hill veterans, the Republicans’ current strategy of attacking the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats on numerous fronts may seem like a bad parody of “Back to the Future— — or, more accurately, back to the 1990s.

Both then and now, Republicans faced a popular Democratic president pursuing a series of high-profile legislative reforms. And in both cases, Republicans used a combination of substantive policy critiques and short-lived scandals — such as 1993’s Travelgate or this year’s dust-up over “green jobs czar— Van Jones — to try to weaken Democrats. And, both then and now, health care reform has been at the center of the debate.

Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) dubbed the GOP’s offensive the “watch the birdie— strategy. Republicans want the public “to focus on things that are irrelevant and not real while we’re doing real work over here,— she said.

Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) engaged in a “death by a thousand cuts— strategy to try to undercut the Clinton administration. Under the Republican duo’s direction, the GOP attacked Democrats on dozens of issues — including the Whitewater and Travelgate scandals, Clinton’s handling of gays in the military and the administration’s ambitious health care reform plans. Republicans at the time often engaged in short-lived, guerrilla-style messaging fights.

At the same time, Burton and other powerful GOP chairmen used their investigative and oversight powers to launch numerous inquiries, forcing dozens of agencies and White House officials to devote time and resources to respond.

Additionally, while Clinton was still popular with the public, his party was often deeply divided over many of his policies, particularly on health care reform, which weakened his political hand considerably.

The Republicans’ strategy proved effective: Big-ticket items such as health care reform collapsed, while other priorities such as Superfund reauthorization became so bogged down that progress became impossible.

This year, an almost identical pattern has emerged: President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats have made health care reform their top priority while also looking to tackle massive overhauls to the nation’s energy and economic policies.

And Republicans, aided by the 24-hour news cycle and hundreds of bloggers dissecting Obama’s every move, have latched on to a series of scandals to try to weaken the administration.

Take for instance the Republicans’ coordinated attacks over the Democrats’ ties to the embattled community organizing group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the administration’s alleged effort to track e-mails of opponents of its health care plans or the administration’s appointment of unconfirmed “czars— to run major portions of the executive branch.

And while Republicans are no longer in control of the House, leaders such as House Financial Services ranking member Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have used their positions to try to hammer the administration and demand investigations and document releases on a host of issues.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the similarities are largely a result of how the two parties are hard-wired — with Democrats better-suited for targeted, focused fights while Republicans thrive in an open warfare situation.

Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) argued that “memories aren’t that long around here— for the GOP’s strategy to be based on Gingrich-Burton. Rather, Dorgan chalked it up to the GOP acting as “a minority party out of power.—

Still, Dorgan said Democrats — even during the height of their battles with the George W. Bush administration — were never able to demonstrate the kind of aggressiveness Republicans have shown this year. “We’ve never really been very good at it. … It is more a part of their DNA than it is ours,— he said.

“The climate around here is pretty rancid. There’s attack on pretty much everything,— Dorgan said.

Similarly, Murray takes the attacks on the administration in stride. She said they are part of how the parties interact in the House and Senate. “It’s part of the ebb and flow of this place. … There are times when we’re all together and times when we’re in a partisan fight,— Murray said.

A senior GOP Senate leadership aide acknowledged that Republicans’ successes this year mirror many of the wins in the mid-90s — as well as Democrats’ success in 2005 killing Bush’s plans to reform Social Security.

But the difference between Democrats and Republicans, this aide argued, is that the GOP is generally more successful mounting many battles at once. Democrats, the aide said, typically do better when focusing on a single issue.

“It’s ironic because Democrats have a reputation of being unfocused, while Republicans are sort of known for our discipline,— the aide said.

A House GOP aide also said Republican efforts have been helped by the emergence of the 24-news cycle and the Internet. ACORN, under the gun for voter fraud last cycle, recently got into more hot water after a video surfaced showing two of its employees allegedly offering advice to a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute on how to evade the Internal Revenue Service and set up a prostitution ring.

“Everything gets magnified because of the emergence of the blogosphere,— the aide said.

House and Senate Republicans said their offensive has been made somewhat easier by the White House, which has tried to tackle numerous issues in its first few months. That decision by the administration has in turn weakened Democrats’ political hand while handing Republicans a host of targets to choose from, they argued.

“The reason that there is so much out there is because the administration is trying to tackle everything under the sun,— Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said. “As he said, he wants to transform the United States of America. I don’t think America needs transforming.—

“I thought they were throwing everything at us,— National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said. “We are on defense, not on offense.—

“Are we doing a good job with what we got? Yeah,— Sessions said. “We are continuing to look at the underpinnings of what brought this majority to bear and how it controls the votes that take place on the floor of the House of Representatives.—

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.