The issue is the risk the Democrats are taking, period, by spending enormous sums that aren’t obviously justified by the current crisis, at the start of an administration in which they’re hoping to push through enormous structural reforms as well. Those reforms have something like a mandate, since Barack Obama campaigned, and won, on promises to fix the nation’s health care system and reform the energy sector. But he didn’t campaign promising to spend massively on existing government programs – and the more massive the forthcoming burst of spending gets, the bigger the risk that it will end up swallowing the broader ambitions of this administration’s first four years. This doesn’t mean liberals are wrong to take the stimulus money and run with it, but they should at least be clear-eyed about the political risks involved.
Everything is a gamble at this point, in any case. The stimulus package, and those who voted for and against it, are all merely assessing the incumbent risks and voting accordingly. It’s a fancy cost-benefit analysis. The Democrats are pushing full throttle ahead because they see this current panic as an opportunity to push legislation they’ve been hoping to push for years, and now is the most golden of opportunities to spend because it can all be done under the umbrella of stimulus. Republicans, on the other hand, have 2010 in their sights. Quite likely any stimulus passed now won’t actually stimulate anything in the near future, and most smart people agree that this is likely to all get worse before it gets better. If Republicans simply refuse to go along with the Democrats on stimulus, then they can point the finger and lay the blame at the Democrat’s feet. This is a risk the Democrats see all too well, which is the only reason they’ve attempted to get bipartisan support in the first place. Freddie wonders why the Dems don’t just steamroll over their colleagues across the aisle, and it basically comes down to a desire to spread any potential political liability as far and as thin as possible. Likewise, the Republicans have dug in their heels not so much out of political principle, something they had very little of these last eight years, but out of political pragmatism.
Then again, there is risk involved in the Republican’s strategy as well. The stimulus might work better than expected, for one, and the Republicans will be blamed in 2010 for not doing more to contribute. The economy itself may take a turn for the better, and then the Democrats, whether or not the stimulus actually did help, could very well claim credit for its perceived success.
Then, too, on a slightly more micro-level, voters whose Representatives voted down stimulus instead of accepting help for their struggling constituencies may find a less ideologically driven base either simply doesn’t turn out in 2010 or actively turns against them. It’s one thing, after all, to oppose stimulus on a purely ideological footing, and quite another to see your neighboring districts get a check and a boost while your own goes hungry.
In any case, I don’t think either side is motivated very much out of considerations of principle or partisanship. They’re all taking significant gambles in an economic situation that is largely made up of unknowns and uncertainties. It’s unlikely to play out in favor of either side to any great degree, so starting now both sides have to plan their spin, and figure out how to create the softes landing possible. Perhaps the Democrats should steamroll the opposition; push all their chips into the center and see what happens. But if that’s the case, the Republicans have nothing to lose and everything to gain from not going along with the big spending measures. If they do go along with the Democrats they’ll only do so haphazardly and in small numbers at best. Any bipartisan victory will still largely go to the Democrats, while the GOP would become little better than accomplices should the stimulus be perceived as a failure, losing their blame game card almost entireley.
Perhaps a better position for the Republicans to take would be that of the people’s watchdog, demanding accountability and transparency for all the spending measure put forth, and following through on promises received by any bailout recipients, etc. Keep it honest, since they have no political means to keep it from happening. Not only is this one area that the GOP has lost enormous credibility over the past eight years, but it’s also politically fairly safe. People love the idea of oversight as much as they love the idea of fiscal responsibility (and almost as much as they love the benefits they actually receive from big spending). Then again, with the vanguard of current movement conservatism spear-headed, it would seem, by Rush Limbaugh, I fear we have very little to hope for from the Right in the foreseeable future, save the same tired talking points that the Republicans only seem to live by when they’ve been pushed out of the majority and into the loyal opposition.