Daniel Larison is right that it is awfully convenient that the Republicans have finally rediscovered their opposition to big spending and bad legislation now that the Democrats hold the White House after eight years of supporting big spending and bad legislation under President Bush. But that’s politics. In fact, one of the main arguments made by conservatives who said the world wouldn’t end if the Republicans lost an election was that the GOP might occasionally vote against big government served up by Democrats.
What makes less political sense is why conservatives of any stripe should criticize the House Republicans for voting against legislation that should not have been passed. Sure, the line should have been drawn well before now. Yes, the Republicans might actually have some credibility if they had voted down a Bush program. But I fail to see the benefit in continuing to misgovern the country for consistency’s sake.
The politics of the stimulus bill are unclear at this point. The poll numbers are inconsistent enough that I suspect they are meaningless, besides reflecting a general sense that the government should Just Do Something and some skepticism that the government may be about to blow over $800 billion for no good reason. If the public, with the help of the media, judges the stimulus a success (in the event the economy somehow recovers in spite of it) Obama will get the credit. If you look at the history of Democratic programs that have passed with Republican support, he would have still gotten the credit if the Republicans voted with him. He’ll get the blame if it is seen as failing.
It’s not clear that the “lesson to draw from the Democrats’ defeat in 2002” is that “challenging a very popular President on a major piece of legislation (especially when the legislation is also popular) usually ends up costing the opposition party seats.” The 2002 elections were only the third time the president’s party had gained seats in a midterm election since the 1930s and only the second time a president’s party had done so in the first midterm election of his presidency. The more common trend is for the party in power to lose seats in such elections. Further complicating things is that 2002 was the first election after 9/11, while Bush still, believe it or not, massively popular.
Even so, many Democrats voted for the 2001 Bush tax cuts, including 12 Democratic senators. No Child Left Behind passed the House with more Democratic than Republican votes. Half the Democrats in the Senate voted to authorize the Iraq war. And the Department of Homeland Security was originally the Democrats’ idea. I only consider the first policy particularly creditworthy, but the Democrats didn’t get to share the credit.
The Republican leadership is to some extent the Republican follower-ship. Lots of Republicans wanted to vote against the Wall Street bailout (in the House, most did) but the leadership blinked. Too many House Republicans opposed amnesty to make it feasible for the leadership to support the Bush administration on immigration. There just wasn’t any Republican support for a stimulus bill that, given the baselines, might permanently increase federal spending to absurd levels. Not even Tom DeLay could have gotten more than a handful of Republicans to vote for this bill. Whatever their past sins, and they are many, good for them.