House GOP Finds the Right Economic Stimulus Strategy

Stuart Rothenberg February 4, 2009 · 11:05 PM EST

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill will have a lot of explaining to do to their constituents.

Americans United for Change President Brad Woodhouse, a veteran Democratic operative who spent the past few years opposing President George W. Bush’s approach to Social Security, goes even further, asserting that House Republicans either “committed political suicide” or “proved their irrelevance to the process” in voting unanimously against the package.

In the sweetest of ironies, Woodhouse uses the same partisan Democratic platitudes of the past eight years to accuse Republicans of having “retreated to the partisan games and failed policies of the past eight years.”

Nice talking points, but the reality is quite different.

The argument that Republicans will “pay a price” for opposing the bill is entirely speculative. Given that nobody seems quite sure whether the stimulus package that eventually emerges from Congress will actually improve the economy, it’s impossible to say with certainty who, if anyone, will be punished for his vote on the bill.

And while the president’s popularity now is undeniable, no one can be certain what his standing will be 18 months from now. As Hillary Rodham Clinton can attest, a vote supporting the president’s position can look wise at one moment and unwise two years later.

Not surprisingly, Democrats want to neuter the GOP further by wooing them with the promise of bipartisanship. That’s a smart and entirely reasonable strategy. But the Democratic view on the role of government, as well as its agenda on specific issues such as taxes, trade, health care, the environment and abortion, is very different from that of Republicans, and GOP House Members wisely stood their ground rather than buying into an approach they are not comfortable with.

Quite often, and certainly in this case, “bipartisanship” is the cry of those who seek dramatic change and are looking for political cover by co-opting the opposition. If things go amiss, it’s better to have the opposition in the foxhole with you, taking some of the incoming fire.

But House Republicans did what the opposition almost always does and invariably should do — they opposed the majority’s plan. Democrats have all the votes that they need, so let them do the heavy lifting for a change.

Yes, voters say they want bipartisanship (which is why both parties talk about it), but they really don’t. Americans like the idea of bipartisanship, but what they really want is prosperity and security. Bipartisanship is merely the means to that end.

It’s true, of course, that voters don’t like politicians to sound crassly partisan. Partisan rhetoric strikes them as arrogant and petty, and while most voters want their political leaders to be confident, they don’t like cockiness or smugness.

House Republicans were smart last week to talk about their desire to work on a bipartisan package and to respond positively to the president’s rhetoric yet blast House Democrats for failing to show the same inclusiveness.

Democrats, of course, complain that in opposing the House package, Republicans voted against a “good bill,” to use Gibbs’ words. That’s why it is up to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his team to stress their specific problems with the bill — spending that isn’t stimulative and would explode the deficit, for example — rather than merely opposing legislation to jump-start the economy.

Some Democrats are already saying their party now should eliminate provisions that were added to try to get GOP votes, since Republicans are just playing games and really don’t want to compromise on a bipartisan bill.

That’s probably fine with most Republicans, who suddenly have a slight glimpse of how their party must have looked after 1994, when House GOP leaders adopted an unflattering swagger that turned out to be the first seed of their own eventual destruction.

But adopting a “take it or leave it” strategy would entail risks for Congressional Democrats. After all, the House leadership lost 11 Democrats on the last vote — did they also commit political suicide by their votes? — and moving a bill with more spending and fewer tax cuts probably would place additional Democrats in an awkward position.

That doesn’t mean Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) couldn’t pass a more liberal bill that doesn’t even try to woo some GOP support, but it does mean that in doing so, she could well face more opposition within her own ranks and create more electoral problems for some of her recently elected Democratic colleagues. It could also place her at odds with the White House, which still wants to “change the tone” in the nation’s capital.

Finally, those who say a recovery would sink GOP House incumbents who voted against the package fail to note a crucial point. If the economy strengthens, voter anger would likely subside and the advantages of incumbency would multiply, making it less likely that voters would fire incumbents of either party. Moreover, Republican incumbents could always argue that they had favored an approach that would have accomplished the same result in a more efficient, cost-effective way.

Any strategy entails some risk. But for House Republicans, choosing to oppose the stimulus package certainly seems reasonable, regardless of whether it actually improves their party’s standing.