Early last week I was working on a post, following Scott and Nate, arguing that perhaps Obama shouldn’t try to make the stimulus bill so bipartisan. Don’t get me wrong – I’m generally sympathetic with Obama’s approach. The instinct for Democrats who have been effectively locked out of governing for eight years or more by Republican partisanship would be to marginalize the minority party. After all their leadership failed and they lost the election, why should they have any say? The effect of this, however, is that it forces Republicans to retreat to their base where their positions and ideology become more extreme. Engaging them in governance should have the reverse effect – forcing them to moderate their policy positions to be more palatable to a national audience.
So I wasn’t going to argue against engagement – I think that’s still a correct political approach, especially when Obama enjoys broad-based popular support – but the stimulus bill itself might be a bad place to practice it. It needs to pass quickly and needs to be effective, and compromising with conservatives damages both. Maybe the bipartisanship could have waited for the next bill.
At least that’s what I was going to write until the bill passed the house without a single Republican vote. That’s a pretty jaw-dropping outcome. If Republicans had “defected” at the same rate as Democrats we would have expected 6 or 7 Republican yes votes. To get none means that the leadership whipped every single Republican house member to vote against the bill. They were sending a message. Obama extended his hand, but they did not unclench their fist.
The conservative base was thrilled, some referring to it in a bizarre reversal as Republicans “growing a spine.” To their base the GOP is saying that they had no input and that the bill is full of socialist pork. Boehner complained “there was no Republican input at all,” a somewhat surreal sentiment given how much the bill was tailored to woo Republican support. But how will this stance fare outside of tight-knit red districts?
I thought it was very interesting that for the very first time a Republican agreed to appear on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC in order to make the case about this vote to a national audience. Unfortunately we didn’t really learn much from Rep Don Manzullo because his comments bordered on incoherent. (I can’t figure out how to link to a specific video on MSNBCs weirdo website, so just look for the “Elephants in the Room” segment from the Jan 28 show.) He started out well enough, saying that he would vote for a “true” stimulus bill that contained more infrastructure spending and nothing with a term longer than about a year. Fair enough. But when pressed on why renovation of the National Mall, which Obama had removed in response to Republican pressure (they ridiculed it), would not be a stimulus his logic kind of fell apart. He said the money would just go to existing bureaucrats and not create new jobs, and when Rachel observed that makes no sense, he went into some bookkeeping jargon and how spending would increase the deficit. Duh. Oh yeah, his stimulus plan is to give everyone a voucher for $5000 off a $20,000 new car, presumably using magic Republican money that doesn’t increase the deficit.
The upshot is that I’m glad the President stayed true to his word and tried to include the minority party. That they chose to play to their base rather than have meaningful input ironically makes it easier to ignore them in the future. Democrats didn’t have to banish them to the outskirts of politics; they did it themselves.