Some conservatives have been critical of the Republicans’ handling of the stimulus debate. Sure, Republicans would have been better off uniting around a plausible alternative to the stimulus package. There’s a reason the polls showed more people turning against the stimulus as a result of Republican attacks than turning toward the GOP. Republicans will eventually have to have their own solutions to win again.
The much-maligned Jim DeMint plan contained some sound policies, but it was vulnerable to the same criticisms as the Democratic stimulus: it was just a bunch of stuff its supporters already wanted to do anyway traveling under the name “stimulus.” (It also would involve its fair share of large-scale borrowing in the absence of spending cuts.) The House Republicans’ line about their alternative plan creating twice as many jobs for half the money got caught up in debates about the details. It also never broke through the president’s rhetoric insisting that all his critics wanted to do nothing about the recession.
But overall, I can’t fault the Republicans’ approach to the stimulus too much. Let’s get one thing out of the way: they were never going to have much influence over the final product. President Obama may have wanted more Republican votes, but the underlying policy differences were simply too great for him get them. The Democratic congressional leadership didn’t even want that many Republican votes — they were content to do only what little it took to woo enough liberal Republican senators to get to 60 votes for a stimulus package in the Senate. Once they had Collins, Specter, and Snowe, there was no more dealmaking.
Nor did the Republicans stand a chance of prevailing legislatively once their unanimity was broken in the Senate. The Democrats have the raw numbers and political power. All the Republicans had was the filibuster and various other points of order that require 60 votes to waive. Once the Democrats counted to 60, the bill was going to pass no matter what John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor or Rush Limbaugh had to say about it.
No, the marsh mouse wasn’t the biggest thing at stake in a bill that moves the country toward government-run health care and away from welfare reform, among other problems. But it seems a better use of pork-barrel spending — taking an absurd example to illustrate the absurdity of an undesirable piece of legislation — than the disproportionate crusade against earmarks undertaken by John McCain.
This is the first time the Republicans have taken a political risk in opposing a large, misguided spending item since Bill Clinton was president. (The only arguable exception is the Republican resistance to SCHIP expansion, though Republican votes were crucial to the creation of SCHIP itself). Whatever can be said of their sincerity, their consistency, their timing, or what kind of buffoonery they’d now be engaged in if McCain were president, if commentators who thought the stimulus was bad policy criticize Republicans for voting against it, who is going to praise them?
A coherent Republican plan for governing isn’t going to flow out of the anti-stimulus campaign anymore than the Contract with America was the direct product of the Republicans’ unanimous opposition to the Clinton tax increase in 1993. But it’s a step in a better direction than the party has traveled in recent years.