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You Are A Republican! A Socratic Dialogue on the Stimulus Bill

Imagine for a moment that you are a Republican Congressman. I know, I know — it hasn’t been easy lately. Thank G-d you’ve been on vacation. Tried to avoid the constituents. Too depressing to go to to the office. Hell, too depressing to go to Applebee’s. At least you won re-election. And, boy, that Blagojevich stuff was fun to watch! But you’re going back to Washington next week, and you’ve got to start thinking through this stimulus package thing.

The first thing you’ll need to recognize is that public opinion is running against you. The public doesn’t think about the stimulus as being analogous to the bailout. They can differentiate spending on highways or airports or solar power grids from spending on Morgan Stanley. CNN’s new poll has the public backing it 56-42. Not overwhelming, but pretty solid. And that number isn’t liable to move in your direction, when the Democrats have Barack Obama on their team and you’ve got Mitch McConnell.

Fact is, you’re not going to prevent a stimulus bill from passing. The House is a lost cause. Obama’s walking on water right now, and even most of the Blue Dogs come from states that he won. He’s not going to lose more than a handful of Democratic votes. Plus, certain of your “friends” — moderates, blue state types — are going to vote for the stimulus. The best you could probably do is limit the Democrats to about ~240 yea votes in the House, still plenty enough for passage. More likely, they’ll be in the somewhere in the 290s or the 300s.

In you’re in the Senate, of course, you could hope to mount a filibuster. But even if you could keep Snowe and Collins and Specter in line, which you probably can’t, that is a dicey proposition. This is because the Obama administration will play the Emergency! card. The public is scared, and they want action. If you try to filibuster the stimulus, the Democrats will scream Emergency!, and they will frame your actions as dangerous, and maybe even a little unpatriotic. Plus, Obama will get a lot of help from the stock market. Equities are very jumpy right now, and they are assuming that the stimulus will pass (see, for instance, the big run-ups achieved in the past month by the steel industry). Were the stimulus to be significantly threatened by your filibuster, the market might dump 900 points in a day. That’ll break your filibuster within 48 hours, and you’ll be duly embarrassed in the process.

So the damned thing is going to pass. You have to think about how to position yourself. And you have essentially three options.

1) Try to pressure Obama into some kind of compromise, and vote for that compromise;
2) Let the stimulus pass as the Democrats choose to construct it, over your strong objection;
3) Yield to Obama, and vote for the stimulus in the name of national unity.

The third choice probably isn’t very appealing to you. It might be appealing to Newt Gingrich, who is telling you that you don’t have the credibility right now to pick a fight. Better off rebuidling and rebranding the party for the long term. But rebuilding and rebranding means someone other than you is in charge — someone, for example, like Newt Gingirch. So that option is out.

So let’s think through the other couple of choices. First thing first: if the economy improves substantially by the midterm elections, you’re screwed. It won’t matter whether you voted for the stimulus or voted against it, and it won’t matter whether you achieved some kind of compromise or you didn’t. If, by the summer of 2010, GDP growth has miraculously recovered to 4% per year, that’s all the public is going to think about. Obama Save Economy!! Me Vote Democrat!! They aren’t going to care about whether you snuck some sort of capital gains tax cut in there.

But let’s say that the economy still sucks in 2010 — which, frankly, is a pretty good bet. That’s going to work much, much better for you if you’ve voted against the stimulus. Not only can you pin the blame on the donkeys, but you can campaign on tax cutting and fiscal responsibility — the stimulus will “prove”, once and for all, the wisdom of conservative economic principles. And then think about this: the Democrats are going to be trying to spend $800 billion in taxpayer dollars as quickly as they can possibly get away with it. Somewhere along the way, they’re going to wind up funding a Woodstock Museum or a Bridge to Nowhere. Somewhere along the way, an enterprising contractor is going to embezzle a bunch of stimulus money, or cook up some kind of pay-to-play scheme. Maybe if you’re really lucky, this will happen in your Distrct. Better to keep the whole thing at arm’s-length and make sure that Democrats get the blame for that.

So it seems to me that your risks and rewards are pretty asymmetrical. The public loves Obama, whereas that (R) beside your name is still causing you problems, especially when every Newt and Bobby and Sarah out there is perfectly happy to throw you under the bus. Fact is, you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt. If the stimulus package is seen as a success, you aren’t going to get an ounce of credit for it. But if it’s seen as a failure, you’d better make damned sure that you’ve distanced yourself from it.

Maybe you can go through the motions of soliciting a compromise — all the better that way to say I-told-you-so later on. But do you actually want a compromise? I think not. Better to let the Democrats be careful what they wish for, and make sure that they get it.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.