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Have Republicans forgotten the Clinton economy?

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David Broder
February 15, 2009
— Now comes the hard part.

Difficult as it has been to push the almost $800 billion stimulus plan to the point of passage in Congress, making it work in local communities across America will be much more challenging. And here in Washington, the political tests that lie ahead as the agenda shifts to energy, the environment, health care, Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots will also pose higher hurdles.


Predictably, President Obama has had a shaky introduction to his new duties. Talented as he is, he had never previously been asked to assemble an administration, to identify prospective appointees, decide where they might fit, recruit them and qualify them for the confirmation process.


Some of the biggest names on his list—Tom Daschle, Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg—backed out before they ever took office. They withdrew for different reasons, but had Obama, with only four Senate years behind him, known the environment and personalities in public life better, he might have anticipated some of these problems.


His Treasury choice, Timothy Geithner, turned out to have unpaid taxes. More important, in his first big test—explaining the new effort to bolster the shaky banking and credit system—Geithner managed to trigger a big sell-off on Wall Street. That was hardly a vote of confidence.


Despite these difficulties and distractions, Obama was able to conduct an inside-outside offensive for his first big bill, the stimulus plan designed to stop the scary slide in the economy. He carried his campaign from Capitol Hill to Indiana, Florida and Illinois, reaching out to Republicans as well as Democrats.


The resistance proved to be much stiffer than he anticipated. Some of it was partisan, with the GOP leadership sending a message that they would not be rolled. But much of it was the reaction to the staggering sums involved. Republicans asked themselves how we would ever pay for this. Democrats, whose doubts kept breaking out in public despite pleas for unity, questioned whether the mix of spending and tax cuts was what it should be.


The daunting thing for Obama is that the next issues will be even tougher in Congress. This was, relatively speaking, easy pickings. It is always simpler to assemble a majority for spending money than for saving it. When Obama turns to health care, he will have to ask someone to pay for the millions of people he wants to add to the insurance rolls. Finding renewable energy sources, combating global warming and improving the schools will all be expensive. And every one of these fields is chock-full of interest groups prepared to fight hard to protect themselves.


Meantime, Obama and his aides have to prove that their expensive fix for the economy can work. Eighteen months or two years from now, statisticians are certain to be arguing whether the stimulus package created or saved the promised 4 million jobs. But by then, voters will have made their own judgment whether the prescription worked—based on the condition of the overall economy, the employment and profits picture, the movement of the markets and the degree of consumer confidence.


Obama has promised—and invested—a lot, even while acknowledging in advance that he knows not everything will work. Any spending program this big is bound to produce its quota of scandals; there aren’t nearly enough contracting officers in Washington and the 50 states to prevent the chicanery.


Republicans have seen to it that Obama has complete ownership of the economic rescue. By withholding nearly all their votes, they are betting that it will fail, just as they did in 1993 when the newly elected Bill Clinton pushed his first budget and tax package through Congress without a single Republican vote.


Back then, Newt Gingrich predicted the Democratic plan would lead to “a job-killing recession” and Dick Armey, his lieutenant, called it “a recipe for disaster.” Even if they had been right, they took the risk of seeming to be betting against something most voters hoped would succeed. But they were wrong—the economy soared under Clinton.


Sixteen years later, today’s Republicans seem to have forgotten that experience.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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