President Obama, like many presidents before him, would like to have it both ways: get broad bipartisan support for his domestic agenda without compromising it. Of course, in the real world, politics doesn’t work that way – you can charm, cajole, browbeat, bribe and blackmail your way to a handful of votes here and there, but unless (like Reagan) you have a substantial faction of the opposition party that is philosophically closer to you than to your critics, or unless (like FDR and LBJ) you have so many votes you don’t need the opposition, you’re going to have to give something to get bipartisan support.
And thus far, especially on the colossal pork barrel masquerading as a “stimulus” bill, Obama has made his decision, or perhaps just allowed Congressional liberals to make it for him: it’s the Democrats’ way or the highway:
As the president, he had told Kyl after the Arizonan raised objections to the notion of a tax credit for people who don’t pay income taxes, Obama told Cantor this morning that “on some of these issues we’re just going to have ideological differences.”
The president added, “I won. So I think on that one, I trump you.”
The results thus far have been predictable:
-The House version of the stumulus bill passed with zero Republican votes and got the barest minimum number of Republican supporters (three Senators) to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. Yet even the pitiful concessions made have Nancy Pelosi vowing to force filibusters of any legislation that gets passed on party-line votes in the House rather than make compromises acceptable even to the most liberal Senate Republicans. The compromise bill has just passed the House, again with no GOP support.
–Even fetishists of bipartisan legislation, like John McCain, have blasted the resulting bill as anything but bipartisan.
-Obama’s own choice for Commerce Secretary, Republican Senator Judd Gregg, ended up withdrawing his nomination due in part to the Administration’s unwillingness to accept that he couldn’t support the bill in its current form (and in part because of Obama’s plan to remove control of the Census Bureau from his department and hand it over to political operatives in the White House in light of Gregg’s opposition during the last census to unconstitutional partisan efforts to skew the count to favor Democrats).
-Even Democrats who are still trying to spin this in Obama’s favor are noticing:
[Oklahoma Democratic Congressman Dan] Boren said Obama “missed an opportunity” for the stimulus bill to be bipartisan.
“It was a good thing for the president to meet with Republicans. The previous administration never met with Democratic members of Congress.
“The problem is that it became a Democrat bill and not an American bill,” Boren continued, “because he didn’t use any of the Republican ideas.”
Now, let’s make one thing very clear here. Obama is proceeding on the view that the guy who wins the election gets to enact the policies he wants. Having won a decisive, if not overwhelming, majority of the popular vote and having a large Congressional majority at his back, he certainly has every right to do that. Democrats spent much of the 2001-2006 period moaning about how President Bush and Karl Rove pursued, at home and abroad, a 50-plus-one strategy of making only the minimum necessary concessions to get only as much bipartisan support as they needed to get things passed, and about how Tom DeLay & company ran the House with the goal of maximizing what they could get for the conservative agenda, regardless of the wishes of the minority. Republicans shouldn’t whine about these things they way the other side did; they are the prerogative of an elected majority, and they promote accountability, so as to put the American people, in 2010 and 2012, in a position to judge the Democrats’ handiwork. As Obama himself put it:
I’m not going to make any excuses…If stuff hasn’t worked, if people don’t feel like I’ve led the country in the right direction then you’ll have a new president.
But we can certainly point out what Obama and the Democrats are doing, as well as how it makes a complete fraud of Obama’s claim that he ever intended to be a “post-partisan” president in any real sense, and complete hypocrites of the very people who whined the loudest when Bush took the same approach. What they are doing is giving a golden gift to conservatives who were feeling demoralized just a few short months ago.
A. The Pure Partisan Politics
As a matter of politics, conservatives, having only a small Republican minority to work with and a moderate-to-liberal faction still remaining within that minority, faced the dire threat that Obama would coopt enough Republican support for his initiatives to make it impossible to get out a distinct opposing message and hold him accountable if he fails. Experienced leaders know what Obama doesn’t:
If Republicans support the Democrats’ economic agenda and the economy gets better, Democrats will get all the credit.
If Republicans oppose the Democrats’ economic agenda and the economy gets better, Democrats will get all the credit.
If Republicans support the Democrats’ economic agenda and the economy does not get better, the two parties will share the blame.
If Republicans oppose the Democrats’ economic agenda and the economy does not get better, Democrats alone will get the blame.
In other words, as a strictly political matter, the only major risk for the Democrats, and the only possible upside for Republicans, is if Republicans can distinguish themselves from what the Democrats are doing. And by taking the “I won” approach, Obama is allowing, even compelling, moderate Republicans to do just that. The result is an opposition that is energized and sees a path to recovery, rather than one that is divided, demoralized and outmaneuvered.
B. The Politics of the Policy
Second, when you look more closely at the policy involved and how it plays politically, the Democrats in general and Obama in particular are doing two unwise things at once: they are ceding critical high ground to Republicans while concentrating their own forces on the site of their own worst prior defeats. Let’s consider what the Democrats are giving up:
(1) The Deficit
Democrats have made a lot of hay the last 8 years complaining about budget deficits, an argument they generally use as cover for tax hikes. Now, they are proposing to spend three quarters of a trillion dollars in pure deficit spending. Not a month into Obama’s term, Democrats are forfeiting that issue entirely. Sure, a year from now they will use the deficits they doubled as an argument for tax hikes, but who will listen?
The GOP was already in the process of a grassroots-driven movement towards fiscal discipline and away from bailouts and “compassionate conservatism.” Just when this internal dynamic is gaining steam, the massive price tag and Christmas list of liberal pet projects and pork cobbled together by the Democrats has surrendered entirely any pretense that the Democrats were going to compete with Republicans on this issue. You may recall, from the nationally televised debates, Obama’s own, unambiguous, read-my-lips promise on spending (which he repeated several times):
[W]hat I’ve proposed, you’ll hear Sen. McCain say, well, he’s proposing a whole bunch of new spending, but actually I’m cutting more than I’m spending so that it will be a net spending cut.
Now, lots of people have gotten elected by promising to reduce the deficit – FDR and Reagan being two successful and popular presidents who ran on such promises and got away with doing nothing of the sort – but the deficit is a goal, with three inputs (tax policy, spending policy, and economic performance), and the public tends to discount such promises accordingly. But spending policy alone is a choice. And we all know there will be no $800 billion spending cut bill to offset the ‘stimulus.’ As Obama himself put it:
You get the argument, well, ‘this is not a stimulus bill, it’s a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? That’s the whole point…. No seriously, that’s the point.
Not only spending, in fact, but substantial pork-barrel spending; the vast sums directed to pet causes of powerful Democrats and liberal interest groups having nothing to do with stimulating the economy have laid bare the fraudulence of Obama’s claim to be against government by earmark and favor. Big Government is back, baby, and it’s so hungry.
Finally, having staked themselves to big government spending and record deficits, Obama and the Democrats appear to be gambling on one thing: results. They are, as I noted, in a position to benefit if the economy improves on their watch. Indeed, Obama got elected in large part by raising expectations that the economy would get better under him, expectations he seems already to recognize he can’t meet. The problem is twofold.
Number one, of course, given the natural operation of the business cycle and the size of the losses in the housing crisis that have to work their way through the system, it will be months at least before things get better. And number two, they run the risk of betting on a strategy that is likely to make things even worse than recessions usually are.
Remember: we haven’t had liberal management of the economy in so long – three decades – that people have forgotten what it looked like in the 1933-52 and 1965-80 periods. Bill Clinton came to office with a mixed bag of policy initiatives: liberal goals like marginal tax hikes, nationalizing health care and an energy (BTU) tax, and more conservative promises like free trade agreements and welfare reform. Clinton got his tax hikes and a few additional regulatory statutes passed (we’ll leave aside for now the ticking time bomb of his housing credit policy), but his health care plan and BTU tax died even in a Democrat-controlled Congress while the free trade agreements (NAFTA and GATT) passed, and once we had a Republican Congress, they teamed up with Clinton to pass welfare reform, a capital gains tax cut, and a number of smaller conservative priorities while restraining spending and ultimately running a budget surplus. In other words, the overall record of the Clinton years was moderate and bipartisan given the deals that got made between the two sides. (Clinton also benefitted from external good fortune that bears no resemblance to the conditions of today – a period of relative world peace and huge growth in democracy and free trade worldwide).
By contrast, Obama and the Democrats have now committed themselves irrevocably to massive growth in government spending, and the odds are that they are not done there, as we are likely to see the ghosts of economic liberalism past and of Eurosocialism present come knocking: more marginal tax hikes, a government takeover of health care, protectionism, massive new regulations, measures to tip the labor-management balance towards unions, restrictions on energy production, you name it. No serious adult can believe that any of this will help the economy; Obama, by always talking about “saving” rather than creating jobs, seems to imply that he, too, recognizes that he can’t promise any improvements. Indeed, liberal economic policy has never been about enabling growth so much as assuming it will happen and fighting over how to divide the spoils. Republicans and conservatives can feel secure in their opposition to these economic policies because we know they don’t work.
So there you have it: Obama and the Democrats, by ramming the ‘stimulus’ bill through on a party-line basis and bulldozing Republican opposition, have taken ownership of old-time Big Government liberalism; they have surrendered to Republicans the very issues that divided the GOP and attracted moderate swing voters to the Democratic banner; they have energized and galvanized their opponents; they have discarded the pretense of bipartisanship; and they have, in the end, lashed themselves to the mast of policies that are proven not to work. The only thing the stimulus bill will stimulate is conservatism.