Stiffing the American People and Calling It “Principle”

Toby Harnden, the U.S. correspondent for the British paper, Telegraph, calls yesterday’s 244-188 vote in the House, approving an $819 billion economic stimulus package, a “slap in the face to Barack Obama” and “a hollow victory indeed.” Why? Because House Republicans all voted against it, despite Pres. Obama’s $275 billion tax cut concession, despite his personal efforts to reach out to the GOP leadership, and despite the reality of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

President Barack Obama got the $825 (or $1.2 trillion over a decade) stimulus package through the House of Representatives but the 244 to 188 vote is a hollow victory indeed. Without a single Republican voting for the bill, his high-profile visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday came to exactly naught – at least on the House side.

Obama vowed to change Washington and usher in a new post-partisan era. The the mood music and optics were pitch perfect as he trekked up to the Hill. Republicans praised his gesture, welcomed his sincere demeanour and appreciated his willingness to listen.

Problem was, he wanted only to listen and did not want to act on what Republicans said. When he was asked if he would re-structure the package to include more tax cuts, he reportedly responded: “Feel free to whack me over the head because I probably will not compromise on that part.”

In Harnden’s view, it’s not Republicans who look petulant and foolish for rejecting essential legislation to jolt the economy at a time when millions of Americans are out of work with thousands more losing their jobs almost everyday — because they only got significant concessions from the executive branch instead of a complete cave-in. Not at all. It’s rather Democrats who are (or should be) chagrined and embarrassed at the punishment meted out to them by the One True Indispensable Political Party for their childish refusal to give Republicans everything they wanted.

Meanwhile, right-wing bloggers are basking in the glow of their sheer wonderfulness.

“Rarely do I say this,” John Hawkins preens, “but I am proud of the Republican Party today.”

James Joyner thinks that both Pres. Obama and House Republicans come out looking good:

Both Obama and the GOP are acting shrewdly here.   The Republicans are acting as a strong, principled opposition party and Obama is playing it cool by continuing to reach out to them.

And several lines down, responding to Michelle Malkin’s characteristic “This crap sandwich is all yours, Dems,” line, Joyner carefully explains that this sentiment is correct, “so far as it goes.”

… But that’s [not] the way to spin this.   The economy’s in the toilet and the GOP can’t be gleeful in standing in the way of the president’s agenda to fix it.   Rather, the point is “we respectfully dissent.”   We want to work with you to find a solution but one that meets our principles.

Well, of course, this is one definition of a solution that meets one’s principles — taking an all-or-nothing stance on a high stakes issue. But there is another way to stake out a principled position on complex moral issues; namely, to consider the importance of the principle as one issue of morality among others. Is the truly principled position always the consistent, uncompromising one? As strongly as I disagree with Obama’s decision to devote a third of the stimulus package to tax cuts, in the hope of getting Republican support, there is a solid argument to be made that Obama was showing more respect for principle in giving Republicans some of the tax cuts they wanted so badly, despite knowing that tax cuts will do zilch to create jobs or stimulate the economy, because not getting any bill passed at all — doing nothing while Americans are going through unimaginable economic suffering and the country sinks deeper into full-scale depression — would be much worse.

Maybe Obama erred in placing such a high priority on passing legislation that had broad bipartisan support — but I don’t think so. Barack Obama did everything he could to get that support, including bowing to ridiculously petty Republican tantrums over new funding for family planning that made up a tiny proportion of the entire bill, and it was not enough for Republicans, because they did not get everything they wanted.

Today, it’s Democrats who are coming up smelling like roses, while Republicans look like mean-spirited, partisan fools. Wingnuttia is telling Obama he “owns” this bill now — but in truth that jab will come back to haunt the right:

Democrats are blasting House Republican leaders for pressing their conference to vote against the stimulus bill and warn the party that it will face political consequences.

In a memo on the “Republican Problem” to “interested parties” that was e-mailed to reporters on Thursday morning, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) charged Republicans with acting in a “partisan and irresponsible manner.”

By voting against the $819 billion stimulus package, spokesman Brendan Daly said Republicans were rejecting tax cuts, jobs in their communities and critical services such as health care. He also rejected arguments that a Republican alternative bill focused on additional tax cuts would have created more jobs.
[…]
Daly all but explicitly said Republicans were playing politics on the bill against a Democratic Congress and president, noting that in 1993, the last time a Republican minority faced a Democratic majority and president, they voted against a budget bill en masse.

“There’s a pattern here of Republican economic mismanagement and Democrats stepping up to do what’s needed for the good of the country while Republicans acted in a partisan and irresponsible manner,” Daly wrote.

The amount of commentary on this at Memeorandum is simply overwhelming. I am going to pick out a few stand-outs here.

Steve Benen (yesterday):

If the House Republican caucus, en masse, isn’t willing to support a stimulus package in the midst of a global economic crisis, it’s hard to imagine when, exactly, GOP lawmakers are going to work with the majority party in a constructive way.

And today, responding to Mark Halperin:

President Obama went to great lengths to reach out to House Republicans, trying to get them to support an economic stimulus in the midst of an economic crisis. The president not only offered them more tax cuts than seemed necessary, he also acted swiftly to remove spending provisions — family planning, National Mall renovations — that they mocked.

The entire Republican caucus, we now know, balked anyway. Time‘s Mark Halperin, naturally, is blaming Obama. From this morning’s appearance on MSNBC:

“This is a really bad sign for Barack Obama to try to change Washington…. He needs bipartisan solutions. They went for it and they came up with zero…. [This] does not bode well for a future that is supposed to be post-partisan. […]

“[Obama] could have gone for centrist compromises. You can say to your own party, ‘Sorry, some of you liberals aren’t going to like it, but I am going to change this legislation radically to get a big centrist majority rather than an all-Democratic vote.’ He chose not to do that, that’s the exact path that George Bush took for most of his presidency with disastrous consequences for bipartisanship and solving big problems.”

It’s hard to overstate how foolish this analysis is.

Read the rest — it’s a treat.

Basically, whether intended or not, Pres. Obama’s decision to reach out for Republican support in the whole-hearted way that he did has turned out to be tactically brilliant. Democrats now absolutely have the upper hand, and it’s going to be Republicans’ burden to explain to the American people why they voted en masse against job creation and against immediate economic relief for unemployed, hurting families.

Hilzoy puts it as plain as day:

As Steve noted earlier, the stimulus bill passed the House without a single Republican vote. I’m glad it passed. I’m also glad that Obama tried as hard as he did to get bipartisan support, and I don’t think that the fact that he didn’t get it shows that the attempt was misguided. There are good reasons to try for bipartisan support regardless of how likely you think you are to succeed.

If you do succeed, then both parties have some ownership of the stimulus bill, neither will be as eager to politicize it, and it will be harder for either to use it to beat up the other. This is good. If you try hard, and publicly, to attract Republican support, but fail, then Republicans look like intransigent ideologues who would rather try to score political points than actually deal with the serious problems the country faces. You, by contrast, look reasonable: you tried to reach out, but your efforts were rejected.

Obviously, this only works if your efforts look serious. If Obama had gone to the Republicans and said: I propose a bill entirely made up of things Democrats really want and you really hate, but please, do join us in supporting it!, that wouldn’t work at all. But he didn’t do that. He went the extra mile. When Republicans protested about particular things, he dropped some of them (though not all: he was not, for instance, willing to compromise on refundable tax credits, and he was right not to compromise on that one.) There’s a fine line between being willing to compromise and being willing to surrender, and I think Obama generally stayed on the right side of it, while being open enough to compromise that he will get real credit for trying.

The House Republicans, by contrast, looked silly. They were carping about tiny bits of the stimulus (the capitol mall?!). They changed the bits they objected to from one day to the next, and looked for all the world like what I take them to be: people who were determined to oppose the stimulus bill from the outset.

The function of trying to win bipartisan support, it seems to me, is to clarify things to the American people. If the House Republicans could be induced to support the bill, that becomes clear, and everyone would have been better off. If, on the other hand, they were bound and determined to oppose it, no matter what, that also becomes clear. Neither would have been clear had Obama not bothered to try.

To my mind, it is generally a good idea to act on the assumption that your opponents are reasonable people. (There are, of course, exceptions: e.g., when you don’t have time.) It’s the right thing to do morally. But it’s also generally the right thing to do tactically. I think this is especially true when you suspect that your opponents are, in fact unreasonable. You should always hope to be proven wrong, but if you are not — if your opponents are, in fact, unreasonable — then by taking the high road, you can ensure that that fact will be plain to the world.

Have fun digging yourselves out of that grave, Repubs.

Cross-posted at Liberty Street.

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