The stimulus fight is now history—but Democrats who don’t study their stimulus mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
Two weeks of highly-concentrated debate, backroom maneuvering, internecine fighting and reconciliation have taught the nation’s Democratic ruling troika – Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—a lot about their new triangular political relationship.
The fast-track passage of the $787 billion recovery package was a huge political achievement, but one marred by a number of headline-dominating screw-ups they’ll need to avoid in the future. The legislative blitzkrieg also revealed successful new strategies to pursue—and the bracing reality of a unified, recalcitrant opposition.
Here are seven lessons the Democrats should take from the stimulus, culled from two dozen Politico interviews with the people who hammered out the deal:
1. House Republicans are furniture
Over and over, Nancy Pelosi and her allies privately delivered the same message to Barack Obama: Mr. President, you can have bipartisanship or you can have a stimulus bill, but you can’t have both.
He seems to have gotten the message. House Republicans, badly outnumbered and shorn of lets-make-a-deal moderates by their losses in the two elections, have proven remarkably immune to crossover appeals, as have most GOP Senators.
On Thursday, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s point man, told reporters that his boss was still committed to bipartisanship, but admitted something fundamental had changed when the GOP “shift[ed] from bipartisan overtures to outright mockery.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) put it more bluntly—blaming much of the week’s drama on Obama’s commitment to courting House Republicans, even after it was apparent they wanted to cast a unanimous nay as a point of partisan pride and principle.
"I don't think he should have set the expectation he was going to get Republican votes," the Financial Services chairman told Politico on Friday. "He set himself a high bar—and an irrelevant bar… and he didn't achieve it… He should not have legitimized [the notion of bipartisanship], that prompted their partisan reaction... I don't think he's going to make that mistake again."
One Democrat likened Obama’s desire to score even a single GOP defector to Abraham’s pursuit of a “single virtuous man” in Sodom and Gomorrah.
After Friday’s stimulus shutout, House Republicans were snickering at Obama’s courtship of moderate Michigan GOPer Fred Upton, who got an invite to the president’s Super Bowl party and a ride on Air Force One – and still voted no.
“The president learned a lesson,” one GOP aide quipped. “Fred’s going to ride on your plane, eat your M&Ms, but he ain’t going to vote for your bill.”
2. Obama needs to get out more
Everyone from the White House to the leadership offices agrees on at least one take-away from the week: The stimulus regained its forward momentum only when Barack Obama used his superlative communications skills and sky high approval rating to sell it.
3. Sixty is the new speed limit
It’s already Congressional cliché to say that the three most powerful people in Washington are aisle-crossers Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
“Your tide rises only as high – and not an inch higher – than your capacity to close debate,” says Eric Ueland, former chief of staff for Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, the last Majority Leader. “It’s a big, painful reality and everybody’s learning it all over again.”
There is an alternative, of course, advocated by a rising number of House liberals: Forget 60, allow the GOP to filibuster itself blue and see what happens.
“At some point the president is going to have to tell Senate Republicans, ‘Go out and filibuster this bill, I dare you!’ said New York Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel. “I mean he’s got all those supporters out in the country, he’s got all his minions, and he needs to enlist them and just let the Republicans filibuster.”
4. David Obey isn’t the President
The House Appropriations committee chairman is a cantankerous, passionate, legislative encyclopedia who is a little bit scary, even to Presidents and House speakers.
Both Obama and Pelosi were deferential to Obey and unwilling to dictate specific terms to his staff during the initial phases of the stimulus drafting. As a result, no one scrubbed the bill for extraneous and potentially damaging programs—and the GOP gleefully pounced when Obey’s staff included funding for re-sodding the National mall, contraception and eradicating sexually-transmitted diseases.
5. Learn to use Outlook, Madame Speaker
Many House Democrats outside of Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle have been griping about the paucity of timely, specific information on the stimulus, especially during the critical first week of drafting.
Members say the situation improved somewhat prior to last week’s conference committee vote—but that was after embarrassing public protests by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Blue Dog Democrats. (Tennessee’s Jim Cooper told a Nashville radio station that House Dems were being treated like “mushrooms”).
“We’ve got to do a much better job of keeping individual members much better informed,” conceded a member of Pelosi’s leadership team, on condition of anonymity.
“We’ve got to push out information internally to members, especially committee chairs, in a more efficient way. There needs to be a faster, broader dissemination—hello—how about an E-mail? It would lead to this being a happier place.”
6. Couples therapy?
Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid talk to each other a lot – listening seems to be a slightly different matter.
On Wednesday afternoon, Reid walked into Pelosi’s office Wednesday to explain why he had just gone on TV to announce a “deal” without securing buy-in on all the details from House Democrats.
The speaker had given Reid the go-ahead for the presser, but she hadn't signed off on a two-house deal, let alone with details that alienated many progressive members. When Reid was summoned to Pelosi’s suite, he was greeted by an enraged Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) who blasted him for acting unilaterally, according to a witness.
“There isn’t a lot of trust these days between us and them,” says a senior House Democratic aide, groping for a word to describe the Senate Majority Leader: “He’s, he’s… impulsive.”
Reid’s allies would use another word—realistic.
The Nevada Democrat, hoping to cement GOP support by dragging them before the cameras, figured “he could sort out the politics with the House later,” according to a Senate Democratic staffer.
Neither has a speed-dial line directly to the other’s phone, aides say, and they call each other through intermediaries. But the problem isn’t frequency of contact—it’s the content.
“They talk to each constantly, but they talk past each other, each hears what they want to hear,” said a Reid confidant.
7. Herd the cats
Even in defeat House and Senate Republicans were, by and large, working from the same talking-points playbook. When it came to message, the cacophonous Democratic caucus couldn’t even agree on basic terminology.
Early on in the process, the Obama message team, led by David Axelrod, sensed this danger and gave House members a quickie tutorial: The word “stimulus” was out, the word “recovery” was in.
It stuck like wet masking tape. At a House Democratic communications team meeting on Feb. 2, an Appropriations staffer stood in front of her colleagues to express her frustration that that most members and aides were still using the “S” word.
When that was over, the same staffer broke out visual aids, according to a person who was present: “She picks up a chart showing a bar graph of what unemployment would be without the bill and one with the bill... but the chart said 'stimulus' or 'no stimulus.'”