Does anyone remember how many Democrats voted for Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981? Of course not, because it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Reagan used the economic misfortune of his time to defund government in the ultimate hope of reducing its role in America’s economic life. Liberal Democrats were horrified, and stood in angry opposition. More conservative Democrats trimmed around the edges but ultimately got on board because they themselves had grown distrustful of their party’s economic orthodoxy, and because the people they represented wanted to give Reagan a chance. The liberals, who generally held safe seats, spent the 1980s in sulking defiance, while many of the more conservative Democrats, who represented Southern and Western areas that were rapidly turning red, lost their seats despite their best efforts to play nice with Gipper. In other words, nothing the Democrats did really mattered. They were set pieces in Ronald Reagan’s play. He seized the moment to change America’s political economy, and because his efforts seemed to work—because Americans felt better off in 1984 than they had four years before—he reaped the rewards and Democrats paid the price.
When it comes to Obama’s stimulus plan, everyone has an interest in pretending the Congressional Republicans matter.
Today the flip side is true. When it comes to Obama’s stimulus plan, everyone has an interest in pretending the Congressional Republicans matter. Conservative commentators pretend they do because they see the stimulus debate as the first shot in the battle for the soul of the post-Bush GOP. Liberal commentators pretend they do because attacking the Congressional GOP is the closest activity to Bush-bashing still available, and thus, it comes naturally. (Thankfully for them, Dick Cheney keeps opening his mouth. If they’re really lucky, he’ll get a show on Fox.) The mainstream media pretends Republicans matter because they want drama, and they know that the only real drama in the stimulus fight is whether it passes with bipartisan support or not. They also like the idea of seeing Barack Obama stumble. They’ve grown tired of the Obama-as-messiah narrative, and are eager for the next act, in which the hero stumbles and shows he’s human after all. Failing in his efforts at bipartisanship would be such a stumble.
But it’s all much ado about nothing. In policy terms, to be sure, Republican critiques of the stimulus are important: We’re engaged in an extraordinary experiment in whether Keynesian economics works, and whether it works more effectively through spending or tax cuts. But politically, the critiques are irrelevant. The Obama stimulus will pass. For a while, the economy will almost certainly remain bad. If by 2011 and 2012, it starts to markedly recover—as the American economy did in 1983 and 1984—Obama will get the credit, no matter how many Republicans voted with him. Blue states and districts will grow bluer, and many of the Republicans who represent them will lose, or else retire before they can. (See Gregg, Judd). Republicans in safe conservative states and districts will keep their jobs, and watch Obama’s triumph in brooding insignificance.
If, on the other hand, the stimulus fails, and the economy is no better when Obama begins campaigning for re-election than it is today, all Republicans will benefit, whether they backed the stimulus or not. (Although by that time the country will be so desperate and irate that we could see serious independent candidacies, latter-day Francis Townsends and Huey Longs promising all manner of populist rescue schemes.)
So relax, Republicans. It’s out of your hands. The other team is at the foul line with no time left on the clock. If they hit the shots, you lose. If they miss, you win. Whether you offer words of encouragement or jeers of disapproval, it doesn’t really matter. You’re spectators in someone else’s game.
Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.