On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the Republican Party found itself on on the brink of irrelevancy. They had just lost a closely-contested presidential election, and were the minority in both the Senate and the House.
Eight years later, the roles have been reversed. The Republican Party has the White House and Congress, with Democrats now in the minority.
The GOP’s return to power is one that took many turns and involved multiple setbacks. But the opening chapter can be traced to the night of Obama’s inauguration.
As Democrats celebrated at inaugural balls across Washington, top GOP luminaries gathered at the Caucus Room, a swank Washington steakhouse. They came in shell shocked and glum, according to those in attendance, but by the end of the night, they would coalesce around a tough new strategy for taking on the new president.
This oral history of that pivotal night is drawn from hours of FRONTLINE interviews conducted over the course of the Obama years — most recently for the documentary Divided States of America. It includes first-hand accounts from GOP lawmakers who attended the dinner; the event organizer, Frank Luntz; Obama administration officials and veteran Washington journalists.
Note: The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length. All titles reflect those that interviewees held at the start of the Obama administration in 2009.
deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs
I’ve never seen Washington quite like it was that day. The streets were closed and they were full of crowds and crowds of people, all kinds of different kinds of people. And you could tell, obviously an important [moment] in the African American community, and Washington, D. C. is a very African American city. But just the people who came and stayed in my house were African American, Latino, Anglo, gay, straight. They all felt that they had a stake in this, and you could feel that in the crowd.
I came down very early because I wanted to see everything that was happening. And I had great credentials, so I could walk everywhere. And I was shocked at how incredibly wealthy, well-dressed, elderly white women were hanging out, talking to hip-hop, urban, 16-year-old black kids. I was just blown away by every size, shape and color of American interacting with each other, and everyone being polite. The lines were awful. The crowds were stifling. And yet everybody was so well behaved and so considerate and so civil and so excited. I ran into so many people who did not vote for Barack Obama and still felt good that day. I cannot begin to tell you what an amazing euphoric moment that was for so many people. It really was a coming-together. It really was America at its best.
I was obviously devastated that my party didn’t win. As a strong Republican, I couldn’t believe that America had chosen who I thought was maybe a socialist, somebody who was a left-leaning person. But as an American, I watched the election of the first African American president and I choked up a little bit. I was proud of my country, even though I was mad that it had to be a Democrat who was the first African American president.
editor, The New Yorker
My vantage point was a pretty lucky one. I’m sitting in the third or fourth row. I’m looking straight up at the podium … This whole thing is taking place in front of the Capitol dome built by slaves, and Barack Obama is about to go spend the first night as president in a house built by slaves. And if you can’t get excited about that as a resonant American historical moment, then you have no sense of feeling or tragedy or progress at all.
national correspondent, The Atlantic
I think to the black community, what it obviously meant was that the highest offices of governance and decision making in America were, in fact, open to black people. That has not been true for the majority of American history, so that, I think, was a huge, huge deal.
Obama campaign adviser
My daughter, who was 12 at the time, really wanted to leave the warm building we were in and actually get as close as we could to the actual stage for the inauguration, right there at the foot of the Capitol. And we were in a hurry, and I remember she fell over because she had so many clothes on. But we get there and we’re standing there and we’re watching. And the thing I remember most about that day was an older white man turning to me and my daughter and him saying to her, “Young lady, you could be up there one day. You could be president of the United States.” And what struck me about that, and of course a broad smile across her face, was how real that could be and that what he was saying was something that our daughter could aspire to. And I will never, ever forget that moment.
On January 20, 2009, I think that the Republican situation was as bad as on the day Richard Nixon resigned. Everyone was depressed about their own situation.
The Washington Post
At that point they’ve lost the House, they’ve lost the presidency, they’re hitting rock bottom. So it’s time for a new vision, and this is where [Paul] Ryan begins to work on his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” and a future that some people believe is the thing that’s going to lift the Republican Party back into primacy.
(R-Ga.) former Speaker of the House
You had Republicans who had been battered by the Bush second term and by the economic results and by the nature of the McCain campaign. And so people were down. I mean they had lost — It’s kind of ironic. We didn’t have a majority in the House for 40 years. We got so used to having a majority. When we lost it after 12 years, I think there was a period of disorientation.
The GOP dinner was first reported by journalist Robert Draper in the 2012 book “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.” According to Draper, the guest list that night included Newt Gingrich, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). From the Senate were powerbrokers such as Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Jon Kyle (R-Ariz.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
I hosted a dinner that night, and it’s a dinner that’s gotten some publicity.
The New York Times Magazine
It consisted of about 15 Republicans, most of them from the House of Representatives. And it did not have any agenda. It was largely an opportunity for these guys to lick their wounds and be amongst friends. Many of them had attended Obama’s inauguration. They had seen that breathtaking spectacle of a million and a half people on the Mall. They had never seen anything like it. Nothing like that had really taken place in Washington before. And it felt like a wholesale repudiation of the Republican Party. It felt like a force with which they couldn’t reckon, and perhaps not even comprehend.
When people gathered, I had no idea who was going to show up. In fact, 15 minutes before — we were 45 minutes into the drinks — 15 minutes before the dinner was to begin, there were only three or four senators or congressmen there, and I thought nobody was showing up. And then they all came, and it was because the parade was late. We actually learned something about Obama on that day: that he was going to be late then, and he’s been late ever since. I don’t know, eight senators, nine senators, eight or nine congressman. The room was filled.
They began to talk about what had gone wrong. And what they decided was that they had — That Republicans had walked away from their own principles. And they were referring to the big spending that took place under the Bush administration principally.
[Paul Ryan is] talking about the fact that the Republican Party has not really addressed the principles of Reagan, that it hasn’t really tried to restrain government. They’ve just spent six years with the majority in Congress and the presidency, and what have they done? They’ve spent more money, created new entitlements. Spending skyrocketed under Bush, and his sense is we have to chart a new direction for the party.
The whole focus was, is the GOP still relevant? Do they still matter? It has been reported, and then totally twisted and abused, that the conversation that night was about blocking and thwarting what Barack Obama was trying to do. It was exactly the opposite. They wondered, did they still matter? Was there a reason and a purpose for them to exist? And it was all about, how do you rebuild from the absolute bottom? They lost every Senate seat they could lose. They lost all these House seats. The numbers were so great that they thought that they weren’t coming back again, not for an election or two but maybe a generation or two.
Well Frank Luntz organized the dinner to get a group together, to talk about the future of the party. And I don’t know what my role was, except I had been at it so long, I’m sort of an in-house historian.
I invited Newt Gingrich to speak first. I thought it made sense. Former speaker Speaker of the House, brilliant, someone who could encapsulate the challenges of what it was to be a very small minority and an insignificant one, and how you, through whatever kind of strategy or planning, create the ingredients to at some point become the majority.
The point I made was that we had to be prepared in the tradition of Wooden at UCLA to run a full court press. And we had to see how Obama behaved. That if Obama governed from the center, that we’d have one set of realities. If he governed from the left, we’d have a different set. And that we had to see what evolved. And that we had to be responsive. You know, our job was to be the loyal opposition and to find ways to improve what was going on, and to offer an alternative to what he wanted to do.
senior editor, The New Republic
Obama is a singularly threatening figure to them, in some ways, because of his offer of bipartisanship. His pledge to end polarization. I mean, he’s obviously liberal. He’s more liberal than Bill Clinton was. But at the same time, he has this sort of bipartisan demeanor and he’s come into office promising to end the polarization and the partisanship that has bottled up Washington. And they realize that if he were to do that … These bipartisan bills wouldn’t necessarily be viewed as Republican successes, they’d be viewed as Obama’s successes and his Democrats’ successes. And they decide that in order to stop Obama from succeeding, they have to deny him the mantel of bipartisanship. Because anything he does will accrue to him and will accrue to the Democrats. And they just decide on a strategy of just across the board opposition to deny him anything because they think that even if it is a policy that they ultimately supported or wanted, they won’t benefit politically from it.
There wasn’t a person in that room who thought that there was any prayer that you could become the majority just two years later. Nobody did. They just wanted to know that they mattered. I remember Jim DeMint, who was one of the leaders of the conservatives, waiting patiently to speak. I remember Darrell Issa talking about how do you hold the administration accountable when you have no levers of power? You cannot imagine just how insignificant they felt.
The plan was to focus on jobs, to focus on spending, and to focus on the 10th Amendment, to begin a process of saying, “We want to move government out of Washington. We want to shrink spending by Washington. And we want to focus on growing the economy.” And, in all three, we represented a very different approach from Obama.
One Southern senator looked me straight in the eye when I invited him and said: “What are you doing? You’re not a senator. You’re not a congressman. Why are you convening these people?” I said that in my study of communication and in my research into how politics and policy works, I learned that the power of convening people, of bringing bright people together for a night of deep conversation and debate, and how that could have an impact on strategy, tactics, messaging. And he said to me, “This is none of your business, and it’s not what you should be doing.” And for about 30 seconds I thought of canceling. And then I realized that until the House and Senate talk to each other, until conservative and moderate Republicans talk to each other, until the younger members talk with the older, wise men and women talk to each other, then there would be no strategy, there would be no organization. I just thought that putting them together in a room, at one time, in one place, that would make a difference.
Over a period of about three, or three-and-a-half hours, they all talked about this, and they began to get more and more optimistic. And they left feeling practically exuberant. They realized now that they had a plan.
They walked into that dining room, the Caucus Room, as depressed as I’ve seen any elected members of Congress. And they walked out feeling like there was a purpose for them, that there was a reason for them to exist. That you could create an alternative budget, an alternative approach to the size and scope of Washington, that there was a rationale that would give them some sense that they could communicate an alternative point of view.
I think, by the end of the evening, we began to realize, wait a second, you’ve got Nancy Pelosi as an opponent. You have a clear choice of ideologies. You have a president who could become very centrist or might not. And there’s no reason for us to be down about it. We have a tremendous amount of hard work to do. But it’s doable.
political scientist, American Enterprise Institute
[They] went in demoralized, disillusioned, depressed and came out with a dance in their step because they’d figured out that the way to handle all of this was to unite like a parliamentary minority … make the [president’s] victories look messy and illegitimate, have a lot of defeats.
There was incredible brainpower in that room. Some people were good at language. Some people were good at policy. Some people were good at tactics. Some people understood the media. Others understood the way Washington worked. And the feeling was that if that group could cooperate, and if that group could lead, that the wilderness might not be a generation away, but it might be more like a few elections away.
nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services
I didn’t know anything about it, but I really wasn’t surprised when I heard it. Keep in mind, there were a lot of Just-Say-Noers during the Clinton administration … There have always been those who just couldn’t tolerate a progressive president, an advocate of governmental action. This was in some ways a continuation of what I saw in the ‘90s, but I think even more visceral, even more personal, even more troubling in so many respects. Far more organized, far more well-funded, and far more determined, learning the lessons that they learned in the ‘90s.
assistant to the president and director of legislative affairs
We didn’t know about the meeting. We didn’t know about the Senate caucus meeting where Senator [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.), according to Republican senators, said something very similar. There were people at the time who were confused by the Republican response because the president started off — not just that first day that he’s in Washington meeting with them — but [wanting] to do constant outreach to the Republican side. Those were the instructions to me. And so that’s what we did, and he tried to put together policies that he thought would attract Republican support … The president’s view was he was going to do everything he could to try to find bipartisan agreement, but if it [wasn’t] there, he was going to continue to do what he felt was in the best interests of the country. But we had no idea about that meeting on inauguration night.
I think the only way to understand it is people putting their politics, weighing their politics at least as carefully as they’re weighing the impact of their public service, and it’s always a disappointment at some level when people do that.
senior adviser to the president
I think the president quickly realized that the strategy of the Republicans was going to be to make him a polarizing figure, to try to separate him from the American people who elected him, to try to make him the problem as opposed to the solution … I think they thought that that strategy would ensure he wasn’t reelected.
You could almost see the polarization. It was palpable. It was very, very real. It was just the beginning, but in some ways it could have been predicted long before that. It was a sense that there was very little opportunity for common ground. Not only was there an ideological divide, there was a tactical divide. There was the belief on the part of many in the conservative movement that they stand their ground, not find common ground. And the more they stood their ground, the more dysfunctional, the more polarized, the more confrontational the environment became.
To my mind, there’s a deep difference between partisanship, which I think is a good thing, the argument over every issue possible, rigorous argument, and complete and utter rejectionism … And what you saw on that very first night in this Republican meeting was a firm decision to be the party of no, and that would only intensify with time.
national political reporter, The Washington Post
It felt really quickly like there was going to be this sort of titanic clash in Washington. I mean, it didn’t take very long for everybody to realize … that this was not some Kumbaya moment where everybody’s coming together and going to sort of put aside their differences for the good of the country. I mean, this was going to be really hard. And of course, I think it was February that the president launches his health care plans, and that becomes, I mean, it’s like almost instantly that that becomes a partisan thing.
I thought he was going to be a great president. I thought he was going to bring America together. He gives these beautiful speeches about not being a blue America or a red America, we’re the United States of America. I really believed that he believed that. Then I watched his first two years and not once did he ever act according to his speeches. It was always in a defiant way toward the Republicans, where he told them, “It’s either my way or the highway.” He never even tried to meet the Republicans halfway during those first two years, and he hasn’t during his entire presidency.
(R-Va.) House minority whip
We have now spent the last seven years stuck in a rut, going back to the president, his attitude from the very beginning on the stimulus bill … My side then overreacted as well. The mission became, on the president’s side, he was going to defend everything he did, and on the Republican side, we were going to try and tear it down, versus saying: “Listen, we’re going to disagree on some things. We’re in opposite parties and believe in different things, but certainly as Americans we have a lot in common. What can we do?” That’s what needs to happen.
To think of how poisonous and toxic it has become, and you really care about the country, and you set aside your partisanship, you have to be angry, because these elected officials betrayed us. We had that moment in time to do amazing things. And we blew it. And our country has become weaker as a result, less able to solve our problems as a result. And it’s a less fun place to live and to grow and do things we want to do. And the American dream is weaker today than it was back then. On January 20th, at 11 a.m., it was America at its best. Today, as we do this interview, it just feels like America at its worst.