Partisan Now, Bipartisan Later

The logic behind Republican opposition to Obama’s stimulus package.

John Boehner

When President Obama’s economic recovery plan passed the House along partisan lines Wednesday, 244-188, some Democrats expressed surprise that not a single Republican voted for the bill. “Not one person felt his or her district needed to have any of this assistance?” one Connecticut Democrat told the New York Times. “That can’t be.”

Of course not. Republicans have acknowledged as much. In notes jotted down during a Tuesday meeting with Obama, one GOPer noted: “We expect the vast majority of House Republicans to oppose the package tomorrow, but we are optimistic that after the bill passes the House there may be a real opportunity for a bipartisan package.” In other words, we will come around. But at this moment, unanimous opposition was the smartest stance House Republicans could have taken—both politically and ideologically.

Voting against the bill was good politics because it shows that the GOP can’t be persuaded by charm alone, presidential or otherwise. Sure, Republicans risk coming off as stubborn in the face of Obama’s ostentatious magnanimity. But at this stage, there’s nothing wrong with playing hard to get. There will be time for bipartisan necking later.

Another advantage is that the vote makes Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor look good. The fact that zero out of 178 Republicans broke ranks shows a united, disciplined front. On a symbolic vote like this—one of the first of the 111th Congress—sending a signal is more important than reaching an immediate compromise.

Lastly, voting against the stimulus is win/win for Republicans. If the package succeeds at reviving the economy, it won’t be in the short term. (And even in the long term, success will probably be less tangible than its cost.) If it fails, they can say, I told you so. Meanwhile, many of them are looking for political cover after voting for the October bailout, which hasn’t exactly been a roaring success.

Still, the ideological argument for opposing the stimulus may be even better. Put yourself in the shoes of a vulnerable House Republican up for re-election in 2010. Your constituents may be skittish about the idea of spending $850 billion, but they want to see some sort of action—especially if they live in Iowa or Michigan, which are hemorrhaging jobs by the day. (Before the inauguration, 53 percent of Americans supported Democratic efforts to craft a stimulus package, and an even larger majority supported infrastructure spending.) At the same time, you want to be able to say that you have been a loyal member of the opposition, with an instinctive skepticism of Big Government. (Leaving aside, for the moment, what you said and did for the eight years leading up to now.)

The best path forward, then, is to express skepticism, hold Obama’s feet to the fire, fight for changes like more tax cuts and less spending on birth control (done and done), and then finally sign on. See, for example, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s insistence on including a provision that keeps the alternative minimum tax from falling on middle-class families. Consider that many Republican districts will benefit from massive government spending—highways, wind energy, and expanded Internet access all help rural areas—and it may be hard to say no. (It’s no coincidence that Dems are targeting Grassley, who is up for re-election in 2010.) As long as Republicans can show they put up a fight, that’s cover enough.

For more evidence that some Republicans will come around, look at the alternative bills offered Wednesday. One of them proposed $445 billion in tax cuts, with less spending than the Democratic bill. But the Democratic bill already includes at least $273 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses. By the time negotiations are over, it’s easy to imagine that number creeping up to the $445 billion Republicans requested. Yes, the spending projects may still turn off many Republicans. But they won’t be able to say there weren’t sufficient tax cuts.

Both sides like to claim the mantle of bipartisanship while insisting that the other side is obstructing. Boehner claimed Wednesday that “[t]he onus is on Speaker Pelosi. She needs to meet with us. She needs to open her doors. We need to begin to work truly in a bipartisan fashion.” That could be pure posturing. But if incentives mean anything—and to Republicans, they do—the pledge of eventual bipartisanship may be legitimate.