For eight years, conservatives pounded their heads against the wall as Republicans not only squandered an opportunity to reduce the size of government, but used their time in power to usher in a bold new era of runaway spending.
Those on the right watched a Republican-controlled Congress vote for the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society in the form of the Medicare prescription drug bill, for increasing the role of the federal government in education through No Child Left Behind, and for one pork-laden budget after another. Even after being thrown out of Congress in 2006, Republicans didn't get the message, and in his last major act as president, George W. Bush signed a $700 billion bailout that enjoyed the support of 91 House Republicans.
Conservatives were left wondering: what will it take for Republicans to finally join in solidarity against extravagant government spending? This week, they got their answer. With President Bush now out of office, conservatives and moderates alike were willing to stand up to the White House in the name of fiscal restraint, and not a single House Republican voted for the horrendous $819 billion stimulus package.
This wasn't for a lack of trying by the new President. Eager to gain bipartisan cover for the bill, President Obama had pulled out all of the stops. He invited House Republicans to the White House, and he visited them on Capitol Hill.
When he assailed Rush Limbaugh, President Obama's aim wasn't to boost the radio show host's ratings. By telling Republican lawmakers, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," Obama was trying to brand opponents of his agenda as irresponsible and ultimately fringe characters, more fit for the freak show at Coney Island than the halls of Congress.
But House Republicans didn't bite.
"This was a bipartisan rejection of a partisan bill," said House minority leader John Boehner, who was a sponsor of No Child Left Behind and a supporter of the Medicare prescription drug plan under President Bush, but who helped lead the opposition to the stimulus package. Eleven Democrats also voted against the legislation.
House GOP whip Eric Cantor did an admirable job keeping Republicans united, while helping to craft alternative proposals that will enable them to go back to their districts to say they voted for something.
Opposition to the bill was a no-brainer for Republicans. Objectively, it's a rotten piece of legislation that uses the economic crisis as a pretext to spend hundreds of billions on a hodgepodge of long-standing Democratic pet projects. Voting for it would have only strengthened President Obama without providing Republicans with any political upside.
If the economy improves and the stimulus bill is viewed as a success in the fall of 2010, it will be a good election for Democrats regardless of whether some Republicans voted for the package. If unemployment remains high and the bill is seen as a lemon, it will help Republicans -- but only if they are on record opposing it.
As of now, depending on the poll, support for the legislation ranges anywhere from tepid to outright weak. Gallup found that 52 percent of Americans supported the legislation, a majority, but a rather thin one -- especially considering that President Obama's approval rating has been in the mid-to-high 60s.
A Rasmussen poll was worse, showing just 42 percent of Americans support the package, compared to 39 percent who oppose it. Perhaps more interestingly, the poll found eroding support among unaffiliated voters. "A week ago, unaffiliateds were evenly divided on the plan, with 37% in favor and 36% opposed," according to Rasmussen. "Now, 50% of unaffiliated voters oppose the plan while only 27% favor it."
In his briefing hours before the vote, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, tried to downplay its significance. "[L]et's not stop after the third inning and tell us who won in the ninth," Gibbs said. "It's a long process."
To some extent, he's right. The legislation now moves on to the Senate, where the Obama administration may have a better chance of peeling off wobbly Republicans. After that, there will be at least weeks of debate and negotiations, and there's always the chance that some GOP House members will eventually buckle. But at least for now, Republicans should be commended for their unified opposition.
President Obama will get his stimulus bill one way or another, but a strong stand now will set the stage for future battles. With a mere 177 votes in the House and likely just 41 in the Senate, a united Republican front will be necessary if there is any hope of thwarting Obama's more ambitious legislative goals, such as government-run health care.
Republicans' new found fiscal restraint is surely hypocritical. It comes far too late. But better late than never.
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