Obama’s “My way or the highway” vs “better ideas”

Congressional Republicans lack President Barack Obama’s bully pulpit and do not have the majorities that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid enjoy. But they are playing their hand extraordinarily well.

By Karl Rove
The Wall Street Journal

Over the past month, House Republicans have used the stimulus bill to redefine their party, present ideas on how to revive the economy, and force congressional Democrats and the president to take ownership of the spending programs soon to be signed into law.
The first smart move House Republicans made was to raise objections to specific parts of the House stimulus bill. Pointing out that there is money in the bill for condoms, livestock insurance, refurbishing the National Mall, and other outlandish things revealed that it is a massive spending spree, not an economic stimulus.

House Republicans had the wisdom to continue to talk to the Obama White House. This made them look gracious, even as the president edged toward a “my way or the highway” attitude.

They also wisely put ideas on the table, such as cutting the bottom two income tax rates and small-business taxes while extending unemployment insurance and other safety-net provisions. With these proposals, Republicans generated news and made it possible for their members to be for something that made sense to their voters. It also helped that the same methodology that the White House used to claim that the Democratic stimulus bill would create four million new jobs showed that the Republican approach would create six million new jobs, at half the cost.

The payoff is that support for the stimulus bill is falling. CBS News polling reveals a 12-point drop in support of the bill over the past month. Pew Research and Rasmussen have turned in similar numbers. The more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.

Related:
Stimulus Fails To Thrill

What is becoming clear is that the House GOP is becoming energized by empowering its “Young Guns.” Leader John Boehner has been good. But he wouldn’t be as effective if he didn’t have the help of Reps. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, and Mike Pence, the House GOP conference chairman. Reps. Paul Ryan and Dave Camp, the top Republicans on the Budget and the Ways and Means committees, are impressive and add depth to the leadership team.

Over in the Senate, Republicans have likewise followed a “better ideas” strategy. Mitch McConnell pushed to make aid to states loans, not grants, and to cut income taxes for the middle class. Other Republican senators came in with ideas to fix housing, put money in the hands of taxpayers, and cut fat from the stimulus.

They also asked the Congressional Budget Office if the Democratic Senate bill was actually stimulative. The nonpartisan CBO found it would have a “negligible” impact on jobs by 2011 and hurt economic growth and prosperity over the next decade.

Mr. Obama will get his bill. But it won’t be one focused on job creation and stimulus. The bill he signs will create a raft of new programs and be the biggest peacetime spending increase in American history, which will give us larger deficits and create pressure to raise taxes. It will also hinder the president’s other goals, such as expanding government health care.

But if Republicans predict economic doom, they will overplay their hand. The Democratic stimulus will slow recovery, but not stop it. Recessions don’t last forever and, 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 untargeted, permanent spending actually revived the economy.

Americans are skeptical of the notion that increasing the size and cost of government will lead to an increase in jobs and economic growth. A recent CBS News poll, for example, shows that 62% of Americans think “reducing taxes” will “do more to get the U.S. out of the current recession” — nearly three times the 22% who prefer “increasing government spending.” A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 60% of Americans are worried that government will “spend too much” to boost the economy. Only 33% worry it will spend “too little.”

The debate here is about means, not ends. Americans and both parties want a revived economy. Republicans want focused proposals that create jobs and growth, while the White House seems ready to accept what House and Senate appropriators have drawn up.

Mr. Obama, for all his talents, has already re-energized the GOP and sparked a spending debate that will last for years. The president won this legislative battle, but at a high price — fiscally and politically.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

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