Though New Orleans’ counter-proposal will be on the table Saturday night (and on the couch, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the streets, dripping down your leg, etc.), the national stimulus package has been the talk of the country for some time. I mean, it should be, as we’ve gone from “the fundamentals of our economy are sound,” “America is a nation of whiners,” and “let them shop at Nieman Marcus” six months ago to “please step back from the ledge, you have a lot to live for.” What surprises me isn’t that we’re talking about it, but how we’re talking about it.
On January 20th, we celebrated the inauguration of a charismatic Democratic President, who won a huge electoral and popular victory, enjoys high job approval ratings and on whose coattails were padded the Democratic majority in the House and Senate. How the hell, then, did Republicans get control of the debate in less than a month? I have three explanations and I’ll order them from most important to least important:
1. Part-of-the-Problem Democrats. Not just Tom Daschle, grand poobah of the out-of-touch-insider, but also the Pelosis, Reids, Franks, Rangels and Waxmans of the world who are undefeatable in their home districts and can’t understand why they have an image problem in the rest of the country. While Obama’s been settling into his new job (and I don’t care how much of a head start your transition team gives you, or how experienced you are, moving into the office of the President of the United States of America has got to have some initial headaches that require your immediate attention). Without Obama around, cameras and microphones end up in front of certain Democratic faces that are neither charismatic nor illuminating and are part of that last Congress which received a lower approval rating than that of Former President Bush.
2. The Republican Machine Always Operates in the Underdog Role. (And Dante has explained this far better than I ever could.) This is their bread and butter – standing back and watching Democrats screw up or explain things badly. They know how to operate as a caucus, they know how to make mountains out of the molehills of policy, and they know to stop talking about ideas that sound ridiculous in the current climate (and that we’ll see that one again if the economy every picks up). They may have sucked as a majority party post-Gingrich: after he left, the only thing they seemed to do was complain about things they had control over; but as a minority party – from the right-wing radio to the most junior member of Congress, they know the playbook. What is more infuriating, having been on the receiving end of this playbook since 1992, most Democrats haven’t figured out how to defend it or where it comes from. They give Rush Limbaugh free airtime and overstate his importance, while he rolls out a well-timed, well-written, seemingly bi-partisan proposal. This train is never late, and the lines never change.
3. Wholesale Strategic Priorities. Yeah, I get it, they were in the minority for so long, they’re excited to get their hands on some legislation that may pass. But politics and policy rarely meet up so closely. All we’re hearing from the GOP is about tax cuts, government as the problem and complaints about pork barrel projects. I recognize that line – it’s the same one they’ve been using since 1994. Let us ignore the 2000 – 2006 years when the GOP controlled the whole government (and had a majority or the Presidency from 1994 to 2008) and constructed all US economic policy based off those ideas – the economy that just collapsed.
The only reason the GOP is not on the ropes right now is because Democrats want to take the whole bite at once, and don’t really have the credibility to do so. Can you imagine how much faster this would be if the Dems showed up on the first week, and hammered out a $300 billion infrastructure bill? Interstates & US highways, power grids, rail, levees, air control upgrades, navigation – these are things everyone knows we need to spend money on (And Democrats could quietly remind voters who didn’t spend money on these things). Opposing such a bill would be incredibly difficult, even if you added provisions to support mass transit, coastal restoration and help to the states for infrastructure projects. It would also start employing folks immediately, and give you a victory and credibility. Next up, go with a $75 billion bill to assist states and cities in school renovation and upgrades; after that, a bill that spends $75 billion police, fire, first responder and emergency responder equipment, hiring and training upgrades. Where would the opposition come from? Follow this procedure and then in a year or two and prove what a good job you’re doing. Then you can spend some money on the lower priority stuff that may not employ as many people.
But the way this is going, Obama will be dealing with a GOP Congress in 2010, for the exact same reasons Clinton dealt with one in 1994.