But we do know this much. Just as in the presidential campaign, Obama has once again outwitted the punditocracy and the opposition. The same crowd that said he was a wimpy hope-monger who could never beat Hillary or get white votes was played for fools again.
“It’s why our campaign was not based in Washington but in Chicago,” he said. “We were somewhat insulated from the echo chamber. In the summer of ’07, the conventional wisdom was that Obama was a shooting star; his campaign was irretrievably lost; it was a ludicrous strategy to focus on Iowa; and we were falling further and further behind in the national polls.” But even after the Iowa victory, this same syndrome kept repeating itself. When Obama came out against the gas-tax holiday supported by both McCain and Clinton last spring, Axelrod recalled, “everyone in D.C. thought we were committing suicide.”
The stimulus battle was more of the same. “This town talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking,” he says. Once the frenzy got going, it didn’t matter that most polls showed support for Obama and his economic package: “If you watched cable TV, you’d see our support was plummeting, we were in trouble. It was almost like living in a parallel universe.”
A useful template for the current political dynamic can be found in one of the McCain campaign’s more memorable pratfalls. Last fall, it was the Beltway mantra that Obama was doomed with all those working-class Rust Belt Democrats who’d flocked to Hillary in the primaries. The beefy, beer-drinking, deer-hunting white guys — incessantly interviewed in bars and diners — would never buy the skinny black intellectual. Nor would the “dead-ender” Hillary women. The McCain camp not only bought into this received wisdom, but bet the bank on it, pouring resources into states like Michigan and Wisconsin before abandoning them and doubling down on Pennsylvania in the stretch. The sucker-punched McCain lost all three states by percentages in the double digits.
The stimulus opponents, egged on by all the media murmurings about Obama “losing control,” also thought they had a sure thing. Their TV advantage added to their complacency. As the liberal blog ThinkProgress reported, G.O.P. members of Congress wildly outnumbered Democrats as guests on all cable news networks, not just Fox News, in the three days of intense debate about the House stimulus bill. They started pounding in their slogans relentlessly. The bill was not a stimulus package but an orgy of pork spending. The ensuing deficit would amount to “generational theft.” F.D.R.’s New Deal had been an abject failure.
In any event, the final score was unambiguous. The stimulus package arrived with the price tag and on roughly the schedule Obama had set for it. The president’s job approval percentage now ranges from the mid 60s (Gallup, Pew) to mid 70s (CNN) — not bad for a guy who won the presidency with 52.9 percent of the vote. While 48 percent of Americans told CBS, Gallup and Pew that they approve of Congressional Democrats, only 31 (Gallup), 32 (CBS) and 34 (Pew) percent could say the same of their G.O.P. counterparts.
At least some media hands are chagrined. After the stimulus prevailed, Scarborough speculated on MSNBC that “perhaps we’ve overanalyzed it, we don’t know what we’re talking about.” But the Republicans are busy high-fiving themselves and celebrating “victory.” Even in defeat, they are still echoing the 24/7 cable mantra about the stimulus’s unpopularity. This self-congratulatory mood is summed up by a Wall Street Journal columnist who wrote that “the House Republicans’ zero votes for the Obama presidency’s stimulus ‘package’ is looking like the luckiest thing to happen to the G.O.P.’s political fortunes since Ronald Reagan switched parties.” There hasn’t been this much delusional giddiness in these ranks since Monica Lewinsky promised a surefire Republican sweep in the 1998 midterms.
Not all Republicans are so clueless, whether in Congress or beyond. Charlie Crist, the moderate Florida governor who appeared with the president in his Fort Myers, Fla., town-hall meeting last week, has Obama-like approval ratings in the 70s. Naturally, the party’s hard-liners in Washington loathe him. Their idea of a good public face for the G.O.P. is a sound-bite dispenser like the new chairman, Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor. Steele’s argument against the stimulus package is that “in the history of mankind” no “federal, state or local” government has ever “created one job.” As it happens, among the millions of jobs created by the government are the federal investigators now pursuing Steele for alleged financial improprieties in his failed 2006 Senate campaign.
Republicans will also be judged by the voters. If they want to obstruct and filibuster while the economy is in free fall, the president should call their bluff and let them go at it. In the first four years after F.D.R. took over from Hoover, the already decimated ranks of Republicans in Congress fell from 36 to 16 in the Senate and from 117 to 88 in the House. The G.O.P. is so insistent that the New Deal was a mirage it may well have convinced itself that its own sorry record back then didn’t happen either.
It is a rarity that a member of the Village actually calls out their cohorts in such a complete and thorough fashion but then again one reason why I like Frank Rich is that he often breaks from the heard and tells it like it is. Hopefully some of his contemporaries will read his article and realize the error of their was. Unfortunately if history is any indication all they will do is get defensive and reject his assessment and double down on trying to create horseraces. But hey at least he gave it a try.