GOP Comeback Strategy Factored in Lagging Recovery

All but wiped out in 2008, Republicans groping for a comeback strategy determined there would be no swift return to economic health under incoming President Obama.

They soon also agreed privately to oppose his major legislation.

Over the next two years, they criticized, attacked, voted against and then attacked some more as Democrats struggled to pass an economic stimulus measure, health care legislation and a bill to rein in Wall Street. Unemployment, 7.4 percent when Obama took office, soared to 10.1 percent, then barely budged for months.

On Election Day, those calculations made in Republican suites in the Capitol reaped dividends that must have seemed almost unimaginable even to the architects of their strategy: a gain of 60-plus House seats, enough to win a majority and end two years of Democratic dominance in Congress, as well as six new seats in the Senate.

"By sticking together in principled opposition to policies we viewed as harmful, we made it perfectly clear to the American people where we stood. And we gave voters a real choice," said Mitch McConnell, the Senate's GOP leader from Kentucky. "As Democrats governed left, Republicans stood together time and again, making the case for conservative alternatives."

Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said "nobody was rooting for unemployment to remain high." Gillespie, who was involved in GOP-aligned groups that raised tens of millions of dollars for independent campaign ads against Democrats, added that "the philosophy of Republicans in Congress is that the answer to our economic problems is not more spending, more government regulation, more mandates. So they opposed his policies on principle, and one of the reasons they don't support his approach is because they don't think it works.

"At the end of the day," he said, "the public agreed with them."

There was more to it.

Many economists agree the economic stimulus, with its combination of tax cuts, aid to states and federal spending on construction and other areas, did create jobs. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress in July that "we should maintain our stimulus in the short term" to strengthen the recovery and help reduce unemployment.

It was not a point Republicans chose to acknowledge.

The Republican Party chairman, Michael Steele, was scathing in his criticism. "The Democrat plan focuses on putting Americans on the public dole," he said, citing expanded unemployment benefits, food stamps and other federal help.

Newt Gingrich, campaigning for fellow Republicans, sought to define the Democrats as the party of food stamps and the GOP as the party of paychecks.

In many ways, Republicans did exactly what a minority party does -- creates bright lines of distinction by opposing the party in power.

But, at the outset of Obama's administration, it wasn't politically popular to take on a new president with such a sky-high approval rating at a time when the country was in bad shape.

The strategy was nothing short of audacious.

Republicans correctly foresaw that unemployment would rise, and that if the economy remained weak, Obama and Democrats would get little or no credit from the voters for having stopped a near collapse. The GOP would not have fared so well if voters had agreed with leading economists who said things would have been much worse without those actions, or if Obama's economic fixes had hastened the recovery.

"When they chose to oppose everything, the only path to success was that he fails and the country fails. That's a high risk strategy," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic operative and lobbyist. "They couldn't have gotten away with saying no the past two years if the economy improved. But the economy didn't improve, and people were still unhappy. And they won."

Had Republicans gone along with Obama's plans and put their fingerprints on his policies, voters would have had a less clear delineation on who to fault.

Said Terry Holt, a Republican operative close to House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio: "Republicans won not for guessing right about the economy but for being right about the economy."

As Obama was transitioning from candidate to president, Boehner summoned economists, most if not all conservative, to Capitol Hill to get their economic forecasts.

"The history was that economies recover slowly after a financial crisis," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, one who presented his views at the time. "Get ready for a long slog," he recalls telling Boehner.

The GOP knew it had to restore credibility with voters on deficit spending and other economic issues after independents and others turned against them in 2006 and 2008.

They saw their chance as Obama's agenda began to take shape.

Wall Street bailouts begun under President George W. Bush were set to be continued. Auto companies on the brink of collapse were lining up for money. Obama administration officials were putting the finishing touches on a massive stimulus plan. A health care system overhaul, too. Democratic budget blueprints called for raising taxes on multinational corporations and the nation's highest earners.

Obama's stimulus plan -- which eventually would reach $814 billion -- began to take shape before he took office. Republicans dug in, seeing it as contrary to their own philosophy.

The GOP strategy started coming together during retreats in January 2009, somber events by all accounts.

Boehner told his lieutenants and the diminished rank and file that they needed to win on the issues to give people confidence that the GOP was ready to govern. "We have to earn back the trust of the American people," he told them, and insisted the GOP be seen as "the alternative party" rather than "the opposition party."

A drumbeat began from Republicans: Obama "spends too much, taxes too much, borrows too much," Boehner said frequently.

Shortly before Obama took office, two of the new administration's top economic advisers -- Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein -- forecast that the stimulus proposal would keep the unemployment rate under 8 percent.

It gave Republicans an obvious target when it reached 9 percent, and then 10 percent.

"There was a fundamental belief that the policies that he implemented were not going to work," said David Winston, a GOP pollster who advises congressional Republicans. "And they didn't work. If Obama's policies would have worked, then the Republican Party would have had to rethink our entire economic philosophy."

That June, the unemployment rate was at 9.5 percent and still rising. Obama's job approval rating was sliding toward 50 percent. The debate over Obama's health care plan dominated the summer.

House Republican leaders settled on a campaign pitch: "Where are the jobs?"

It was a question Boehner would relentlessly ask for more than a year, and one that would lay the groundwork for the GOP to later craft a policy platform on the economy and other issues.

In elections a year ago, Republicans replaced Democratic governors in Virginia and New Jersey. Independent voters broke 2-1 against Democrats, foreshadowing big gains a year later. The same thing happened in Massachusetts a few months later when Republican Scott Brown stunned Democrats by winning an election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Ten months later, victorious Republicans met to plan their transition to power in the House -- just as it was announced that the economy created 151,000 jobs.