Even with President Barack Obama’s triumph on election night in 2008, Tom Perriello needed a recount to squeak out a victory in his House race. He ended up winning by roughly 700 votes in a district the size of New Jersey -- a margin that infuriated Republicans and shocked political observers.
A progressive wasn’t supposed to be elected in Virginia's 5th. And Perriello’s victory was quickly celebrated as template for other Democrats residing in rural places stung by factory closings. Conviction politics had worked south of the Mason-Dixon line.
But just as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised to make Obama a one-term president, GOP activists applied a similar strategy to Perriello. Within two weeks of taking office, he faced his first attack ad.
“I’m pretty sure it was about the stimulus and this idea that we were gonna steal your money and spend it all on lavish palaces for Nancy Pelosi,” Perriello recalled in this week’s episode of The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional podcast.
More than any other member of Congress from that class, Perriello's two years in office reflected the hopes, promises, stumbling blocks and casualties of bitter partisanship of the early Obama years. He came in eager to propel a transformative policy agenda that was less rigorously partisan in nature. He left a casualty of the GOP’s intransigence, martyred in the pages of the New Yorker.
"I think [Republican leadership] made a correct Machiavellian decision that there was this extremely talented group of new people who had come in, many of them not from traditional political backgrounds," Perriello said. "And if they had time to really get to know the voters as human beings, that that would really lock in the benefits of incumbency. They really went for the jugular early on that."
In looking back on those active two years in office, Perriello conceded that cynical obstructionism was a potent political weapon. But it was still horrifying to watch.
He recalled how Obama encouraged lawmakers to get a stimulus bill to his desk by the time that he was sworn into office. But as Perriello went about getting his bearings, he soon realized that Congress was as dysfunctional as the economy it was supposed to rescue. Perriello tried forging partnerships with members of the freshman Republican class only to be rebuffed.
"They were really reined in from even talking to us," he said. "It was like the parents in the schoolyard saying, you're not allowed to play with those kids or something."
It was like the parents in the schoolyard saying, you're not allowed to play with those kids or something. Former Congressman Tom Perriello on trying to partner with Republicans in 2009.
The schoolyard restrictions were startling enough. It became downright shocking for Perriello as Republicans steadfastly refused to support the stimulus even as the administration added conservative-friendly provisions including targeted tax cuts. He called it a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment." One day, he approached a GOP leader to see what could possibly be made different to earn their support.
"The person said, 'You're asking the wrong question,'" Perriello recalled. "'The question is if it works, Obama is gonna get all the credit for it. And if it doesn't work we don't want any part of it.'"
In retrospect, the moment perfectly encapsulated the tremendous productivity and missed opportunities of those early Obama years.
The stimulus ended up passing with only a handful of Senate GOP votes and none from House Republicans. Perriello had his objections, too -- he thought the construct and vision of the bill was far too underwhelming at a time when the country needed an economic transformation -- but he cast a yea. He would do the same for other politically tough pieces of legislation, from cap-and-trade to health care, and in sticking to the theme of his '08 campaign, he would go back home and vigorously defend each votes.
It wasn't enough. Though he kept his re-election close -- far closer, in fact, than many of his more centrist Democratic colleagues who'd bucked the White House -- Perriello, who now serves Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, was swept out of office in the tea party wave. By then, however, he had soured on Congress. The shock felt from those first two weeks never fully receded.
"I know there's partisanship," said Perriello. "But you really believe underneath it that there's some statesmanship… and to have that crass of a political analysis at that moment, that they literally could not -- even with the possibility of a depression at stake -- rise above that to do what was good for the country. It was spelled out to me really clearly early on."
This podcast was edited by Christine Conetta. Listen to it above or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson on his 2012 presidential campaign.
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