Sunday, February 15, 2009

The House GOP: Rhetoric and Realpolitik

We've had two votes in the House on the stimulus now, and not one GOP rep has broken rank to support the bill. Cue rhetoric from the Democrats about obstructionism and partisan politicking in a time of crisis. That rhetoric has its appeal, but can we really blame the Republicans? The writing was on the wall, after all: this bill was going to pass.
If your vote isn't actually going to have an effect on the outcome, it's not unreasonable (I don't think) to vote your self-interest, and Realpolitik says GOP representatives should vote no. That way, if the stimulus fails to stimulate, the GOP can sing the "We Told You So" song. If it provides the expected modest boost to the economy, the House Republicans can hammer home what they'd have done to make it better. And even if the stimulus proves to be a Just What We Needed Cure-All — and the percentages point against this possibility — it won't be the worst thing in the world to have opposed it. The electorate doesn't always preoccupy itself with who was on the wrong side of a question that proves to be one-sided in retrospect: consider the case of isolationist Republicans who wanted no part of World War II.

(And given this electorate, which self-sorting and crafty gerrymandering has calcified into party-identifiable districts, it's typically the case that an in-party primary battle poses more of a threat to a rep's reelection prospects than the November vote. This gives a Republican every incentive to look more Republican, if he wants to hold his seat. So they embrace the tax-cut ideology, even if "we all [ought to be] Keynesians now.")

It's no coincidence that the GOPers were so stridently opposed to the stimulus bill in the House, and that they held the line so staunchly — whereas Senate Republicans worked within the system, labored to improve the bill, proposed amendments, and mustered three moderate GOP ayes to reach the 60 votes required of a deficit spending measure. The Republicans can only be obstructionist up to the point of actual obstruction. The party couldn't gamble on the bill not passing — and in the end, they didn't. I see that it's fashionable these days for the right-wing bloggers to excoriate Senators Collins, Snowe, and Specter: but of course it's these three Senators who have empowered the party ideologues to carp and criticize without actually having to answer for their opinions. The far better play here for Republicans is to take a dive and appear to go down fighting.

It would be interesting to know how our esteemed Congressmen would vote if we created a situation in which they couldn't know the ideological composition of the two houses and had no clue in advance where any of their colleagues stood on the legislation — say, if we locked each of them up in a storage facility cubicle (climate-controlled, of course) with nothing inside but a flashlight and a copy of the bill. Blinded as to self-interest, these 535 could well be in a position to vote their consciences, for once.

How do you suppose it would shake out? Would these GOPers still be convinced that we're better positioned to inject cash into the economy in the short term by giving it to people who are terrified of losing their jobs, their homes, their health insurance right now? Do they truly believe it's a better investment in the economy if the stimulus money is ultimately spent on Big Mouth Billy Bass, Tickle Me Elmo, and other novelty baubles, rather than on roads, high-speed rail, broadband, medical records digitization, weatherization, and other infrastructure? I'm guessing they wouldn't, but that's all water under the corroded bridge. House Republicans voted no on Friday because they could. So hooray for them — and hooray for the three Senate "traitors" who enabled them to do it.

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