Economic Stimulus Bill: Sound Policy vs. D.C. "Bipartisanship"

I appeared on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show last night at the top of the show to discuss the legislative wrangling over the economic recovery package - and why Democrats seem so interested not in passing the bill, but in attracting the majority of the Republican Party to support it. You can watch the clip here.

Rachel and I discussed a question that I asked a few weeks ago: How much should taxpayers have to pay for political aesthetics? As I noted back then, the Obama administration concedes to reporters that it could pass an economic recovery package right now, without making any policy concessions to Republicans, such as substituting more tax cuts for more infrastructure spending. And yet, Obama and Democrats are doing just that - making concessions to Republicans in hopes that a majority of Republicans will support the final bill. And so again, how many billions of dollars in inefficient tax cuts must taxpayers be forced to finance in order to help Obama attract extra Republican votes that he doesn't actually need?

What's so bad about this question even being on the table is that since I wrote my original post, Republicans themselves have publicly acknowledged that Democrats do not have to make any concessions to them in order to pass the bill.

With diminished minorities in both chambers, Republicans are unlikely to find the votes to block the bill. In the House, there are enough Democrats to pass it without any additional support. In the Senate, Republicans could derail the bill, but only if united; two Republicans crossing over to support Obama would allow Democratic leaders to thwart a filibuster.

"Most of the Republican caucus has acquiesced to the political reality that the stimulus is going to happen," said strategist Phil Musser, who has advised Republicans in both the House and Senate. "The question is how much political support it's going to happen with."

"There's widespread consensus here," the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Friday at the National Press Club. "Everybody believes that government action is necessary, and this is coming out of the mouth of somebody who doesn't normally advocate government action as the first resort."

So, let's review all the verifiable facts:

FACT: Economists on both the right and left agree that spending on infrastructure is a better guaranteed way to create jobs and stimulate GDP growth than enacting new tax cuts.

FACT: Top congressional Democrats acknowledge that spending on infrastructure is a far better way to stimulate the economy than tax cuts.

FACT: Even top Republican pollsters acknowledge that the public strongly supports prioritizing robust spending on infrastructure over more tax cuts.

FACT: The Obama administration acknowledges that it can effectively pass whatever economic recovery package it wants - including one that is robustly progressive in seriously prioritizing spending on infrastructure over tax cuts.

FACT: Senate Republicans and Republican Party strategists acknowledge the same thing that the Obama administration acknowledges: Namely, that Democrats have the political capital to pass almost anything they want.

FACT: Despite this reality, Obama has both pushed Congress to add conservatives' ineffective tax cut proposals to the recovery bill, and reduce funding for job-creating transportation infrastructure in order to fund new tax cuts.

FACT: House Republican leader John Boehner says House Republicans are opposed to the stimulus, unless it is loaded down with corporate tax cuts.

FACT: Next to George W. Bush himself, House Republican leader John Boehner is the single most irrelevant individual in American politics when it comes to this economic recovery package. Why? Because House rules do not permit a filibuster, and therefore the Democratic majority can pass whatever it wants in the House.

FACT: Despite John Boehner's stunning lack of any political power or relevance, both the media and top Democrats continue to act as if he has near-veto power over the economic recovery package. The Huffington Post notes that the Beltway media is breathlessly reporting on Boehner's every declaration, and - for some odd reason - President Obama is spending time meeting with Republican House members, trying to get them to support an economic recovery package.* Again, this is happening despite Boehner and House Republicans having absolutely no actual legislative power to shape the stimulus package.

OK, so knowing all of this, we get to the key question: Why do Democrats seem more interested in attracting majority Republican support they clearly do not need than in passing a bill that uses taxpayer money most effectively to stimulate the economy?

As I told Rachel, my guess is that it has something to do with Obama wanting Republicans to join him in politically owning the economy. That is, he likely believes that if most Republicans end up voting for the economic stimulus, that somehow means they won't criticize him when the economy continues to (inevitably) falter in 2009.

What this misunderstands, of course, is that Obama is not a senator anymore - and that means he can't dodge political hot potatoes like the economy. Whether he likes it or not - and whether Republicans vote en masse for the stimulus bill or not - he will soon be the one who politically owns the economy. Fair or unfair, that's just how it works in American politics - the president gets the credit and blame for the economy's success and failure.

Knowing that basic Political Science 101 reality, it seems to me that the smarter course of action is to make sure the economic recovery package is structured as effectively as possible to make sure every single dollar is best used to boost the economy. The better the recovery package is - the more direct spending it includes on proven job-creating programs - the more likely it will be to boost the economy, and thus, the more likely Obama will be to get credit for that economic success. Alternately, the worse the recovery package is - the more it is loaded down with ineffective tax cuts - the less likely it will be to boost the economy, and the more likely Obama will be to get the blame for that failure, whether Republicans voted for it or not.

This is the Republicans trap - and it is pretty smart political strategy. They get to advocate for policies that appease their base and satisfy their corporate donors. If they succeed in getting those policies amended into the stimulus bill, they will help sabotage the effectiveness of that bill and then have a perfect attack point with which to bludgeon Obama on the economy. If they fail in getting those policies amended into the stimulus bill, they will be able to say that's the reason the economy is not doing well in 2009. And one these outcomes are guaranteed, whether they vote for the bill or not.

What's not guaranteed is the effectiveness of the strategy - that's up to Democrats and Obama. If they fall for the trap and they continue watering down the bill with the very right-wing tax cuts that the public rejected during the 2008 election, they will make the GOP strategy look brilliant. But if they stop playing games with an opposition that just got drubbed in the election - and if they pass a robust spending plan without regard to how many extra GOP votes they get - they will at least hold out the possibility that the recovery package will ultimately boost the economy (and thus their political support), if not in 2009, then soon after.

The problem may be the deeper conflict between Obama's two key sets of campaign promises. On the one hand, he promised a huge agenda of new progressive spending. On the other hand, he promised bipartisanship. As we are seeing, those two goals create a fundamental conflict - not in the country at large, as polls show, but in Washington, D.C., where the term "bipartisanship" has little to do with true bipartisanship among the American public. The Republican Party in Washington - despite polls and the election mandate - simply will not agree to support the kind of robustly progressive spending that Obama campaigned on.

Thus, Obama has to choose between his campaign spending promises and his odes to bipartisanship - and unfortunately, it looks like he's trying not to make a choice at all. He's proposing a plan that tries to split the difference between GOP-backed tax cuts that Democrats acknowledge are ineffective, and progressive spending proposals. Policy-wise, the net effect is a weaker stimulus package than the moment requires. Politically, the effect is to help resuscitate a Republican Party and conservative movement that should be left to wither away. Indeed, the only way the GOP can claw itself back to political relevance is to garner attention from Obama and the Democrats - and sadly, it seems Obama seems intent on helping the GOP get back in the game.

As I told Rachel in concluding our interview, this situation is particularly sad from a historical perspective. If Franklin Roosevelt's main concern during the Great Depression was getting the majority of the Republican Party to support his proposals, we probably wouldn't have Social Security. Same thing for Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s - if he was primarily worried about getting GOP support for bills he signed, we probably wouldn't have the era's landmark civil rights laws nor Medicare.

I'm not saying that bipartisanship shouldn't be welcomed - but I am saying it shouldn't be the first and foremost goal.

Bipartisanship should come as a welcome - but, at this moment of wide Democratic majorities, legislatively irrelevant - product of good policy. It shouldn't be the other way around. Policy shouldn't be crafted first and foremost to garner Washington's faux bipartisanship, because at least one half of that bipartisan equation - congressional Republicans - aren't interested in representing any kind of public consensus. They are, in a sense, legislative terrorists, and as our government always tells us, you can't negotiate with terrorists. When you do, what happens is that good policy is sabotaged into mediocre or bad policy - all in pursuit of meaningless political aesthetics (And the good news is that at least some congressional Democrats get this and are pushing amendments that move the economic stimulus bill in a far more progressive direction).

Last I checked, nobody remembers by how many congressional votes our nation's greatest statutes passed into law. What we remember is the policy. To subvert that policy in pursuit of the image of bipartisanship and praise from the Beltway media is to waste this real but fleeting window of opportunity.

* UPDATE: Some good breaking news - word just off the newswires is that Obama told House Republicans he's not giving in to more tax cuts. That's great - although I still think Obama shouldn't be spending any of his time - and political capital - helping House Republicans seem even vaguely relevant.