By John Feehery - 09/16/13 10:42 PM EDT
Things were going along fine until Katrina hit.
Or maybe it just seemed that way.
The Republicans had been riding high. They had swept the 2004 elections and had a solid plan to “save” Social Security. But after Katrina, that all changed. As the public soured on the Bush administration, it also soured on the Iraq War.
This was all of precursor to the great financial meltdown that occurred in 2008.
President Obama had a decent shot of beating John McCain for the presidency in September 2008, up until Lehman Brothers collapsed. And then it became a certainty.
No matter how many one-liners Sarah Palin could throw at the then-senator from Illinois, it didn’t matter. McCain was toast, and America would then make history by electing its first African-American president.
The new president promised change you could believe in, and then he governed like a conventional Chicago politician (if more than a bit inexperienced).
Continuity, more than change, dictated how Obama navigated the twin perils of a financial meltdown and a complete breakdown of faith in governing institutions.
His top financial advisers were Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, two architects of the current financial world we all live in. And his stimulus was a laundry list of Democratic pork projects, including “shovel-ready” highway spending that had been on their wish list for years. Not exactly revolutionary change.
The president decided to ignore the American people’s lost faith in government. Instead, he put all of his attention to enacting a complicated new healthcare reform law that included elements that were first proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. But most voters were in no mood to be forced into a government healthcare scheme, and the Tea Party was born as a result.
Republicans, in a historic rejection of the president’s healthcare law, swept into the House majority in the 2010 elections, although they couldn’t capture the Senate.
A year after the Tea Party fueled the Republican resurgence in the House, a new protest movement rose on the left. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t as well organized, nor was it as well funded, as the Tea Party, but it had a simpler and more powerful message. “We are the 99 percent,” they proclaimed, and by occupying Zuccotti Park in Manhattan and in several other cities across the world, they captured the imagination of the media and helped to define the stakes of the 2012 reelection campaign of President Obama.
Republicans nominated a proud member of the 1 percent as their presidential standard-bearer, and he immediately complained about the 47 percent who he said would never vote for him, which pretty much ended his campaign.
After the 2012 election, the Republican Party fractured. Tea Party conservatives voted against John Boehner (R-Ohio) in his bid for Speaker, almost bringing him down in a signal that the Tea Party would not play nice with party leaders any more, making it extraordinarily difficult for the GOP to negotiate with any strength with the president.
Obama, having limped into his reelection, found that he had no political capital to draw on, that his second term was undefined and that his chief goal would be to protect his healthcare law from a conservative industrial complex that was making a bunch of money by attacking Republicans for not repealing it.
As Republicans attack Republicans for not being courageous enough — or stupid enough — to shut down the government over ObamaCare, liberal Democrats are attacking the president for thinking about naming Summers as the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.
And so, here we are: a fractured Republican Party facing off against a feckless president, both dogged by protest movements that make business as usual almost impossible to achieve.
How they navigate the big decisions that must be made, from keeping the government open to extending the debt limit, dealing with a rogue Syrian regime and implementing an increasingly unpopular healthcare law, is a complete mystery to just about everybody in and out of government.
Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.