Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Stimulus and Republican(ism)s

If you have been following President Obama's efforts for an economic stimulus package, you will probably be aware of a few key facts:

  • The President has agressively reached out to Republicans in the House, trying to get their buy in to the stimulus, in the hopes of achieving a broad bipartisan consensus on the bill.
  • As a result of those discussions, Obama agreed to have certain provisions of the bill removed, including one that would have allowed for states to provide contraceptive services to women without seeking a waiver for this purpose. (And by the way, Obama has signalled that he still wants this passed, but is happy to do it in a different bill - as he should. This approach will not only make affordable contraception available to women who need it, but will save $400Million from state budgets that are getting squeezed right now.)
  • The stimulus passed the House yesterday - without a single Republican vote. Despite both President Obama's direct negotations with Republicans in Congress and his willingness to remove provisions of the bill that he favors but they oppose.

Disappointing, but what does it all mean? There are two ways of looking at both Obama's actions and at those of the Republicans in the House.

Obama's Approach

Already, I've heard from a bunch of folks who are frustrated - even angry - that Obama made compromises trying to win Republican votes that were not, in fact, forthcoming. I get that frustration. One way of looking at Obama's Approach is to say he tried and failed to win Republicans to the stimulus, and gave things up in the hope of achieving this. Effectively, this view sees the outcome as a net loss for Obama and a net gain for Republicans.

I don't see it this way.

Obama has passed a good Stimulus package - admittedly he took out a few items I liked (not only the contraception, but also for instance some much needed funding to restore the National mall). But there are still lots of really good things in there - stuff that is going to make a big difference to folks who are struggling to stay afloat, and that will calm some of the panics and help get people spending again.

Meanwhile, Obama made it as clear as possible that he is serious about working with anyone who is serious about working with him - he's willing to listen, and adapt where it is reasonable to do so although he will stick by his guiding economic philosophy. A case in point of this is he refusal to strip out tax rebates from those whose incomes are so low that they never paid income tax. Obama believes that a stimulus should distribute money to those who are most likely to spend it. Lower income people are more likely to spend that money quickly, so apart from humanitarian reasons, they are pragmatically the best people to quickly stimulate the economy. Win win.

Nothing that Obama did in his effort to reach out to Republicans in any way harmed the bill's fundamental effectiveness - even his decision to offer significant tax cuts as part of the bill wasn't really something he surrendered to Republicans, but is in line with his belief that the money should be spent as quickly as possible, and more money in people's pay checks is a quick and efficient way of doing this. Capital Gains tax cuts, however, which Republicans wanted and Obama refused, are NOT a good way of doing this. So he made a sincere effort to work with these people, but stuck by his core philosophy. Mature leadership, and I think it came off that way to most people who were following it.

The Republican Approach

On the other hand, Congressional Republicans have achieved... what exactly? Well, they didn't stop the bill; it passed the hourse easily and will pass the Senate, apparently with bipartisan support. They managed to block a couple provisions from appearing IN THIS BILL, although most of them - including the contraceptive waivers they were so offended by - will almost certainly be included in another bill sometime soon.

They didn't get the permanent tax cuts for the wealthy that they were looking for. And, by the way, those Republicans who are waxing indignant about how shocked, SHOCKED they are that the stimulus spending will increase the deficit are being transparently hypocritical - their tax cut would have increased the deficit just as much (raising spending and cutting income both hurt the budget) but would have benefited different folks.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter. The only thing Republicans really acheived here is making thier actual point of view crystal clear to the voters - the Republicans don't want deficit spending to stimulate the economy. They don't want it so much that they were even willing to disagree with President Bush and harm John McCain's campaign last summer to try and stop it from happening. After an open trough pork buffet during most of the Bush administration, precisely at the moment when the economic cycle has turned around, to the point where almost all economists agree the deficit spending is our best chance for a recovery, they just plain don't want it. Tax cuts yes, spending no. Principled stupidity?

Or, perhaps the explanation is more cynical than that. Perhaps the plan is to distance themselves from the recovery plans as much as possible in the sincere and desperate hope that it will fail. The calculation, 100% political, may be that the Republicans' best chance for a comeback is the hope for an ongoing economic crisis that they can blame entirely on Democrats. Malevolent scheming?

Inspired by Obama's policy of presuming good faith from the other side, I'm going to hold fast to the assumption that the Republicans in Congress are acting from misguided principle rather than the unpatriotic hope that the country will fail.

Either way, it seems to me that they have won nothing in this battle.

No comments: