The Party of “Oh No”

If you thought the GOP’s first 100 days were bad, wait for the second 100.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Obama’s first 100 days.

While the “first 100 days” may be an arbitrary construct, Sen. Arlen Specter just made it very real for the Republican Party. The first 100 days of the Obama administration will now look like a period of relative prosperity for the GOP—at least compared with the second 100.

Consider: In the last three months, Republicans won concessions from the Obama administration on the stimulus, the budget, cap-and-trade, and the Employee Free Choice Act—all Democratic priorities weakened by strong opposition. They cast doubt on government intervention and offered a philosophical alternative to widespread public bailouts. They used the spectacle of the “tea parties” to argue that while President Obama may be popular, his policies are not.

Ah, for the good old days. Without Specter, the congressional GOP goes from small but powerful to smaller and nearly powerless. As the 41st Republican in the Senate, Specter stood between the Democrats and a filibuster-proof majority. As the 60th Democrat (assuming Al Franken gets seated), he will complete the filibuster-proof majority.

You don’t know what you got till it’s gone. In retrospect, the Republicans had quite a bit.

In its first 100 days, the GOP will be remembered for doing a lot, relatively, with a little. The party’s most significant victory was its first: The near-unanimous Republican opposition to the stimulus package. Despite Obama’s elaborate courtship ritual—drinks at the White House, Super Bowl parties, sit-downs with swing lawmakers—every single House Republican voted against it. While the rejection of “bipartisanship” risked making the party look obstructionist, the display of unity signaled that Republicans weren’t going to be charmed into submission. On the other hand, it emphasized their powerlessness—even when every single Republican opposed the bill, they still couldn’t stop it.

What they could do, though, was change it. With their powers of moderation combined, Sens. Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter managed to skim $100 billion off the stimulus package total. The deletions may have been cynical, logically inconsistent, and ultimately insignificant. But they let the GOP show who was in charge. They also allowed the party to hedge against its obstructionism in the Capitol’s other chamber. Sure, the House GOP may be obstinate. But the GOP can do constructive compromise, too—just look at the Senate!

The Republicans racked up other small victories as well. They won the PR war over the “reconciliation” process—the practice of attaching a piece of legislation to a budget bill, which can be passed with a 50-50 vote instead of requiring 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. On April 1, Republicans introduced a bill that would prohibit the “use of reconciliation in the Senate for climate change legislation involving a cap and trade system.” It passed with the help of 26 Democrats. For the GOP, that was a double victory: a blow to cap-and-trade as well as a reaffirmation of the role of reconciliation as strictly for budgets. (Never mind that Republicans have favored multiuse reconciliation in the past. Or that they may be unable to stop the Democrats’ use of reconciliation on health care legislation.)

Republicans also managed to shut down the Employee Free Choice Act with Specter’s help. The legislation will be back, but Republican-stoked squeamishness about the secret-ballot provision of “card check” seems unlikely to change. Meanwhile, Specter says he will continue to oppose card check.

And while the first draft of the Republicans’ alternative budget contained no numbers, the party got its act together for the second draft, presenting a cogent, albeit unrealistic, response to Obama’s budget priorities.

All of these measures got the GOP pegged by Democrats as the “party of no.” But that’s better than the party’s new incarnation as the “party of ___.” There’s a difference between saying “no” and doing “no.” Before, Republican no’s actually meant something. They affected legislation. Now they can’t.

That’s simplifying things, of course. Parties don’t always vote in blocs, and Specter promises to be just as independent a Democrat as he was a Republican. Plus, Democrats didn’t necessarily need Specter to reach their magic number on key bills.

Some Republicans will also argue that losing Specter is the best thing to happen to the party. “It’s ultimately good,” said Rush Limbaugh. “You’re weeding out people who aren’t really Republicans.” Now, with the riffraff out, they can finally get back to conservative principles. Meanwhile the Democrats, led by Obama, will continue in their misbegotten attempt to create a socialist nanny state. Eventually the American people, their consciences shocked, will vote the grown-ups back into power.

Maybe so. But until then, the Republicans are looking at a bleak landscape. Whereas before they could wound the Democrats with a thousand paper cuts, they’re now reduced to shouting from the balcony. And with Specter officially onboard, Democrats can turn down their hearing aids.

Slate V: The Worst 100 Days