By Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 16, 2009
Thanks to the party-line nature of Congress's votes on the economic stimulus package, the plan to turn around the worst financial crisis facing the country in more than 50 years now carries not only enormous fiscal stakes but also political stakes that are nearly as large.
President Obama's advisers are betting that the historic legislation he will sign tomorrow will bear fruit quickly, and they plan to do everything they can to highlight evidence of it creating the jobs he has promised. That public relations effort kicks off tomorrow as a two-day swing through the West begins.
But the Republican Party has made its own bet: that the stimulus package that Democrats rushed through Congress will have been deemed a failure by the time the 2010 elections arrive, leading voters to rebuke Obama and reward the GOP with much-needed victories.
Whichever side proves to be right, the sharp, partisan lines over the stimulus bill make it plain that both parties intend to exact a political cost over last week's votes. And their leaders are looking to history for inspiration as they consider how to maneuver in the weeks and months ahead.
For Democrats, the guide is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who even with unemployment still above 20 percent led House Democrats to pick up nine seats in the 1934 midterm elections. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) carries with him "Traitor to His Class," a new biography of how FDR built the Democratic domination that endured for three decades.
But Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House minority whip who led the fight to deny Obama every GOP vote for the plan, is studying Winston Churchill's role leading the Tories in the late 1930s, a principled minority that was eventually catapulted into power over the Labor Party. He calls the stimulus bill "a stinker."
If the economy turns around, Obama could eventually benefit much as President Bill Clinton did after pushing his economic recovery plan through Congress in 1993 with little Republican support.
Far smaller than Obama's bill, Clinton's was nonetheless controversial at the time, requiring Vice President Al Gore to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Republicans insisted then that the bill would be an albatross around Clinton's neck. And they succeeded in using the controversial tax increases to help them sweep into power in the midterm elections of 1994, when Newt Gingrich (Ga.) led a revolution of young and conservative House members.
But when the sluggish economy rocketed off several years later, Clinton claimed full credit and used Republican opposition to the legislation as fuel for his successful bid for reelection.
Now it is Obama's turn, and the political stakes -- like the mammoth bill itself -- are much larger. Obama has acknowledged that little else he does in the next four years will affect his legacy if jobs and prosperity have not returned.
"Now, look, I won't lie to you," Obama told a crowd in Fort Myers, Fla., last week. "If it turns out that a few years from now people don't feel like the economy's turned around, that we're still having problems, that folks are still unemployed, that our health-care system's not more efficient, then, you know, you guys won't applaud me the next time I come down here."
The president never shied from calling the stimulus package "my bill" while stumping for it around the country. With only three Republicans supporting the measure in Friday's votes, there is almost no political cover for Obama if it doesn't work.
And Republicans have made it clear that they intend to try to shift the economic debate toward concern about the federal deficit.
They are also preparing to use the ballooning deficit to renew their push for additional tax cuts. Groups including the Club for Growth and GOP leaders such as former House speaker Gingrich say such cuts would do more to improve the economy than the spending plan would.
"The Republicans' job is to say, 'Here's a model we know is going to work,' " Gingrich said in an interview. "If they do that, they will be astonished at how good 2010 will be."
Democrats have "taken a huge gamble," he added. "I can't imagine them spending $780 billion without so many examples of waste and corruption. Big bureaucratic spending . . . it never works."
Republicans rarely worried aloud about the deficit during the spending spree of George W. Bush's presidency, as Bush largely ignored the mounting red ink as he waged war in Iraq and battled terrorism. Many conservative Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), blamed last year's congressional and presidential losses on the lack of fiscal discipline shown by their party under Bush's leadership.
But the massive stimulus plan has given Republicans a political opportunity to try to erase the memory of those years by convincing the country that they have found religion again when it comes to spending.
Cantor says bluntly that Obama and Democrats have decided to "assume ownership of the era of the bailout." And he predicted that voters will recoil at the prospect of huge and growing deficits and an increase in the size and role of the federal government in their lives.
"I think the 2010 elections certainly will be a test for the mandate of change that this administration was elected with," Cantor said Saturday. "I do think that there will be a price to pay."
But some Republicans worry that it could be their party paying that price.
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), one of the three Republicans who voted for the legislation, said the GOP risks becoming "the party of Hoover," echoing a warning that Vice President Richard B. Cheney delivered last year during negotiations over the Bush administration's rescue of the auto industry.
After Hoover left office in 1933, amid the economic rubble of the Great Depression, Specter noted, "not until Eisenhower came up decades later did a Republican win the presidency, and he was a war hero."
In the coming weeks, if the stimulus package works as Democrats have described, federal money flowing into state coffers may allow many governors to announce that fewer layoffs are necessary. Construction projects that were delayed could start up again, providing much-needed work for laid-off construction workers. Consumer confidence could rebound, sending people to the stores again.
Obama will be poised to take credit for such successes -- and he will -- regardless of whether they are a result of the legislation.
"We stand as Democrats ready to be accountable to the American people for this legislation and for the results we predict it will bring," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said shortly after the bill passed the House on Friday.
Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, predicted just that kind of Democratic bragging in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal late last week: "If history is a guide, sometime late this year or early next, the economy will rebound on its own. When that happens, Democrats will argue that their un-targeted, permanent spending actually revived the economy."
If Rove is right, Republicans could find themselves answering uncomfortable questions from their constituents about their no votes.
In the meantime, much depends on which party succeeds in shaping public opinion about the effect of the legislation.
The president's aides appeared yesterday on morning news programs to begin lowering expectations. Press secretary Robert Gibbs warned on CNN's "State of the Union" that it will take time before people see improvement in their lives.
"I think it's safe to say that things have not yet bottomed out," Gibbs said. "They are probably going to get worse before they improve. But this is a big step forward toward making that improvement and putting people back to work."
For his part, Rove believes the 2010 elections could be a victory for the GOP.
"The president won this legislative battle," he said in the Wall Street Journal column, "but at a high price -- fiscally and politically."