Political Hay

It Won’t Work

The GOP's message should be simple: the Democrats can't fix the economy.

By 12.8.08

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Successful political messages are simple, and by succeeding with the simple message of Change and Hope, Barack Obama has at least spared us the usual post-election complaints of Democrats that they lost because their message was too "nuanced."

Victory, however, creates a new problem for Democrats -- governing. This problem is especially tricky now because Democrats won't be able to blame their failures on Republican scapegoats.

Democrats will hold at least 256 House seats when the 111th Congress convenes, the largest Democratic majority since the 104th Congress ended in 1995. As liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias says, this renders House Republicans irrelevant in terms of shaping the legislative process.

The situation is only marginally better in the Senate where, with Sen. Norm Coleman apparently a recount survivor in Minnesota, Republicans will have 42 seats, allowing at least the theoretical threat of a filibuster. Given the number of moderates and mavericks in the Senate Republican caucus, however, that threat is likely to remain theoretical.

Such powerlessness will be discouraging to the GOP, but if there is a bright lining to the dark cloud of Republican irrelevancy, it is that it puts Obama and congressional Democrats on the spot. As of Jan. 20, Democrats are in charge of the legislative agenda and, for the first time since the early years of the Clinton administration, they won't be able to use Republican opposition as an all-purpose excuse for failure.

Failure is a foregone conclusion for the Democrats' economic agenda, and Republicans seeking a coherent conservative response can boil their message down to three words: It won't work.

Infrastructure "investments"? It won't work. Pump-priming "stimulus" payments? It won't work. More taxpayer-funded bailouts? It won't work. Go through the familiar liberal litany of economic prescriptions that Democrats are now suggesting, pick any proposal, and the message is the same: It won't work.

The unfortunate truth, as sober economists freely admit, is that there is no easy cure for the financial mess caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. Contrary to John McCain's now-infamous September declaration that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," the fact is, as Michelle Malkin said, the fundamentals suck.

Whatever policy Washington pursues, a quick and painless recovery is not going to happen, and the only real question is whether Democrats will delay recovery by implementing liberal policies that make a very bad situation even worse.

Predictably, Obama's choice as chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has already claimed that the crisis justifies "big, bold things" -- and nationalizing America's health-care system is surely high on the list of "big, bold" plans Democrats have in mind. But whatever the arguments for a government health care takeover, such a move will do nothing to promote economic recovery. It won't work.

Obama himself is already seeking to lower expectations, telling Tom Brokaw the recession is "a big problem, and it's going to get worse." In the same interview, however, Obama argued for "a strong set of financial regulations" and neo-Keynesian "investments" in deficit-funded infrastructure projects that he called "down payments on the kind of long-term sustainable growth that we need." It won't work.

Some Republicans will reject that message as too negative, arguing that the GOP needs to offer its own "positive" policy alternatives. Bobby Jindal, for instance, has declared that Republicans "can't be the Party of No." Well, what's wrong with "no"? Practically powerless to stop the Democratic agenda, and even less able to enact their own agenda, why should Republicans entangle themselves in the details of specific alternatives, when they can reap a bounty of political capital by repeating the simple truth?

This is not to say that no Republican alternatives should be proposed. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert's idea of a federal tax holiday is exactly the right kind of "libertarian populist" alternative, with an ideological appeal to limited-government conservatives and a common-sense appeal to independents. Democrats are sure to oppose it, but they will have a hard time explaining why Washington can't get by with a dime less of tax revenue while ordinary Americans everywhere are tightening their household budgets.

Ordinary Americans are already telling pollsters that they oppose a bailout of the Detroit automakers -- a bailout that Democrats desperately want as a sop to their union supporters. Most industry analysts, however, don't think Detroit can survive without major restructuring, and thus a bailout will merely dun taxpayers to waste billions in a futile delay of the inevitable bankruptcy. It won't work.

However, polls also show most voters are confident that Obama can fix the economy, which is actually bad news for Obama, since nothing he does can bring recovery before the 2010 mid-terms. And if he pursues the big-government interventions favored by liberal Democrats in Congress, the smart bet is that we won't see a recovery by 2012.

In the short term, Obama's charisma and a "honeymoon" with the Washington press corps will shield the new president from blame for the economic slump he inherited. Yet not even the media's leg-tingling infatuation will protect Obama forever.

Just as the failure of the Democratic economic agenda is a foregone conclusion, their political agenda -- expecting voters to wait patiently for the delivery of the promised Hope -- will meet the same nuance-free fate: It won't work.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.