With apologies to the artist formerly known as Prince, it appears that the Republicans want to party like it's 1993.
That was Bill Clinton's first year in the White House. When he pushed an ambitious deficit-reduction bill, designed to erase all the red ink left on the federal ledger by Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives managed to get it passed - without a single vote from the minority Republicans.
Flash forward to 2009, and last night's vote on the massive Obama-backed stimulus bill that is designed to at least mitigate the economic downward spiral and hopefully put down the markers for a recovery. The U.S. House of Representatives managed to get it passed - without a single vote from the minority Republicans. The new president extended his hand to the opposition members, essentially telling them "Yes you can," to which they essentially responded with their new battle cry, "Now we won't."
There's an old political saying that goes something like this: If you're stuck in a deep hole, stop digging. Yet the Republicans - most notably the House Republicans, who generally hail from strong conservative districts - continue to dig. The GOP was badly thrashed in the '06 and '08 elections, the electorate basically declared that the party as currently constituted is unfit to govern, the new president is trying to confront a dire economic crisis, the electorate is demanding swift corrective measures....and despite all that, the party has decided to wield the shovel and sink itself deeper into the soil.
Obviously the recovery package isn't perfect. No piece of legislation is ever perfect. The ingredients in this sausage will change anyway as the product moves through the Senate next week, and then into the House-Senate reconciliation process. Maybe, by the target date of mid-February, there will be more tax cuts, maybe less social spending, or maybe the the whole package will get even bigger and top $1 trillion (as many economists insist it should). Maybe, in the end, Barack Obama will be able to scarf up a sufficient number of GOP votes (in the more conciliatory Senate) to declare victory in his quest for bipartisanship. And probably, in the end, no faction in either party will be fully satisfied; indeed, liberal and moderate Democrats remain at odds over the spending priorities.
Given all these variables, the House Republicans figured it was worth their while at this juncture to simply send a message. The message itself is a mix of sincere philosophical conviction and cold political calculation, salted with a dose of snarky 'tude. They decided it was a good time to show their demoralized conservative base that they still stand for something. Which meant doing nothing.
So they simply stood aside last night and let the House Democrats pass the $819-billion package on their own. The Republicans complained that there weren't enough tax cuts, and no doubt they were sincere about wanting more (even though, as economists routinely point out, middle- and upper-class Americans are more likely to bank any new cash rather than pump it back into economy by spending it). They also complained about some of the Democratic spending provisions, and no doubt they were sincere in their philosophical opposition to federal largess (although they were never concerned about their own runaway spending during the Bush era, and their relentless mockery of the provision earmarking $355 million for the fight against sexually-transmitted disease is frankly trumped by the fact that the proposed STD outlay is roughly .04 percent of the total package).
No, what's really happening here is that GOP figured it had to make a political move, to boost grassroots party morale. Most of the Republican moderates are gone now, having been defeated in the last two elections. Most surviving Republican congressmen hail from safe conservative districts (which were created during the past few decades by those who draw the district boundaries), and the voters in those districts are not interested in working with Barack Obama. In fact, any GOP congressman who strays across the aisle is likely to be challenged from the right in a subsequent party primary.
So it's smart to vote No just as a matter of political necessity, even if it risks exposing these Republican congressmen to the charge that, by voting No, they thumbed their noses at the national interest and failed to aid the growing number of Americans in need. But they're not likely to take much heat in their districts for opposing a big federal spending bill - and besides, there's always the chance that Obama's measures will fail to arrest the economic plunge, thereby giving these Republicans a potential opportunity to declare, during the 2010 election season, "I told ya so."
On the other hand...this is not 1993. Bill Clinton was a minority president, elected with just 43 percent of the vote, and the Republicans had actually gained some seats on Capitol Hill in the '92 election. By contrast, Obama is the most popular incoming president of his generation, with a job approval rating that nudges 70 percent, and the GOP has been relegated to the margins in two straight elections. House Republican leaders are claiming that their No vote last night was actually aimed at Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not at Obama - but that's not how their stance will play out beyond the Beltway, where most (hurting) Americans don't care a whit about inside-baseball congressional politicking. They'll just note the shorthand: "Republicans stiff Obama."
Moreover, the latest Gallup poll reports that a majority of voters now identify themselves as Democrats in 43 of the 50 states (quite a switch from 2002, when Gallup reported that a majority of the states leaned GOP). If the final recovery bill, signed by Obama, ultimately helps to nudge the economy upward with minimal Republican support, the congressional GOP members risk being dismissed as even more irrelevant than they are today.
But since they're faring so badly at the moment, why not just role the dice, wash their hands of all responsibility for governance, and hope that they can reap the political reward if things go wrong? Defeat can be so liberating. As Janis Joplin once sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."