The unity and clarity of message exhibited by the Republicans this past week seemed to suggest that they have found their role as loyal opposition in minority. This may be, but Republicans have an uphill battle before them. This week in politics, it was the President who won.
Bipartisanship only became a governing keyword in the 20th century because of the frequency of divided party control over the different branches of government. The fact is there is no need for bipartisanship when a majority exists in the Congress, and the Republicans know it. This is why they have tried to make a virtue out of bipartisanship as an end in itself, decrying the way in which the economic stimulus bill was passed.
Yet Republicans were complaining about a 1,100 page bill that nobody had perused at the same time that they were arguing that it was a bill of pork and spending. Here’s the problem: the more Republicans made a stand against the process by which their input was stymied, the less credibility they had making a stand against the substance of the bill. So the wisest Republicans focused most of their attack on the process, because accusing the Democrats for not consulting with them is a face-saving strategy on the off-chance that the stimulus package actually works. In 2010, we shall see if their gamble paid off.
The truth is it is not easy being in the minority. In the run-up to the passage of the bill in the Senate, everywhere we heard that 60 was the new 50. But this may have been a higher bar than was necessary for the Democrats to cross. The fact is 50 may well have been enough, given the high political cost the Republicans would have had to bear if they fillibustered a bill in a moment of perceived economic emergency. As it is, Democrats are already accusing the opposition party for becoming the obstructionist party.
The President has only stood to gain from the Democrats’ victory in Congress. When the revised conference bill passed in the House, Congressional Democrats lavished praise on the president, even though they were the ones who had crafted and delivered on the bill. All the president did was go on the road in the final days before passage to sell it. This is hands-off leadership that has benefitted him, because the cries of foul from the Republican aisle are mostly being leveled on congressional Democrats, not the president. But Obama’s gain does not come without strings. Both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid know that he needs them, so it is unclear for how long he would be able to stand above party in his hitherto futile effort to chase the ghost of bipartisanship.
For now, President Obama has won the battle, and the honeymoon is still his to enjoy. The stimulus package may have more spending than tax cuts in it, as Republicans assert, but congressional majorities agree with him that such spending is necessary. Without income support (making up $100 billion of the bill), unemployed workers would be forced to reduce spending, thereby causing a vicious contractionary circle. If the federal government did not offer support to cash-strapped state and local governments (making up $250 billion of the bill), more jobs would be lost, or so modal opinion seems to hold. No surprises that some Republican governors are on board with the stimulus. The Daschle and Gregg nomination embarrassments reveal the danger of making lofty promises on the campaign trail that the reality of government may not permit, but they also pale in comparison to the significant achievement of passing the biggest economic stimulus package in US history. If the president’s fortunes tell us anything, they suggest that the Republican minority have not yet found their footing.