Monday, February 16, 2009

Thoughts on the Stimulus from a Moderate Republican

Now that the Stimulus Package passed by Congress will be signed into law by President Obama tomorrow, I have a few thoughts I wanted to share from my perspective as a Republican and not just a run-of-the-mill Republican, but a moderate Republican, or so-called "RINO."

My initial thoughts aren't good. I understand and accept the need for a larger role for the government right now. I also think there needs to be something done to jump start the economy. But I don't think the bill passed is what is needed. It's not simply that it's too large, but it seems to be a catch all of every Democratic plan that has not been enacted during the Bush years and even during the "New Democrat" Clinton years.

Any economic stimulus package should do what Travis Johnson has suggested:

  • Bridge the gap for between jobs for unemployed Americans.

  • Keep people in their homes.

  • Help existing businesses survive and provide a stable environment in which new ones can develop.

But that is not what happened here. What passed, seems overly bloated, and that's with the three moderate Republican Senators.

Many of the projects that were funded are important and even necessary (such as Amtrack or high speed rail). But it seems like those are the things that should have been part of an appropriations bill, NOT this bill. In someways, this is a repeat of what the GOP led Congress did in the days and weeks after 9/11, use a national crisis to throw in needless stuff. David Frum has said as much:

After 9/11, President Bush (supported by me, among others) argued that the right way to respond to a terrorist attack from Afghanistan was by overthrowing Saddam Hussein. We offered a complicated explanation for this roundabout response, and for a time the public accepted it. But as the war went wrong, and failed to deliver the promised results, our plan’s credibility collapsed.

Now the Democrats have placed themselves in a similar situation. They are offering an indirect answer to an immediate question. The suspicion arises that they had decided the answer long before the crisis ever materialized—that they are using the crisis as an excuse to do what they had long wished to do anyway, for reasons that they are not stating in full.

But the other thought that has been running in what passes for my mind is how the GOP is to respond to the current era we live in and especially how moderates should respond. As a whole, the GOP is still stuck in the 1980s: offering tax cuts as the solution for what ails us. But when taxes are already low, you need to find a different note. (Of course, in light of the current bill, it looks like the Democrats are stuck in the 1930s, but that's for another post at another time.)

The fact is, with all this debt that the government has run up, as well as the Baby Boomers getting ready to claim their Social Security checks, taxes will go up. Maybe not to what they were in the late 1970s at 70 percent for the top rate, but they will go up. So, the GOP is going to have to find a new plan and a new way to manage the current reality- not live in a time warp. The 1980s were a good time, I was a teen back then, but just like it's silly to try to live like your 15 when you are going on 40, it's silly to pretend that Reagan is still in office.

Part of that answer should come from moderate or Progressive Republicans. But the recent actions of the three moderate Republican Senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania are laudable for making a bad bill, well, less bad, it also shows what moderates should not do.

What is troubling about their actions is not that they deigned to cooperate with the Democratic majority. I do think it was good to try to reach out accross the isle. What was troubling is that there was as Ross Douthat said, more of an emphasis on process than there was on policy. Douthat, who isn't fond of GOP moderates, I should add, was correct in saying:

So if the GOP wants, say, $500 billion in tax cuts, the country clearly needs $400 billion in tax cuts - but not a penny more! And if the Democrats want $900 billion in stimulus, then the best possible policy outcome must be ... $800 billion in stimulus! To read this Arlen Specter op-ed, justifying both the stimulus package and the cuts the "gang of moderates" have attempted to impose, is to encounter a mind incapable of thinking about policy in any terms save these: Take what the party in power wants, subtract as much money as you can without infuriating them, vote yes, and declare victory.

Now, being a moderate or progressive Republican myself, I have a lot of respect for Snowe, Collins and Specter. I share many of their views. But Douthat is correct. This form of bipartisanship, this form of moderate Republicanism, was not one that should be aspired to: it reeked of defeatism, instead of pragmatism. It had no vision of it's own; just trying to limit the scope of a Democratic bill.

This is what gives moderates in the GOP a bad name; it makes us look gutless instead of showing vision. Instead of fashioning a conservatism that is forward looking and progressive, moderates look like they are supporting a pale version of Democrats.

This has not always been the case. Moderates in the party tended to have an viewpoint that was all their own and not simply aping the Democrats. Here is what Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote about Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of New York and GOP Presidential candidate in 1944 and 1948:

Unlike the stalwarts who continued to dominate what little remained of the Republican representation in Congress in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, Dewey believed that the Depression had permanently reshaped the political landscape and that it was insufficient for Republicans simply to denounce the New Deal and hope in vain for the eventual disappearance of the welfare state. As Dewey said in his first gubernatorial address, “There has never been a responsible government which did not have the welfare of its people at heart… anybody who thinks that an attack on the fundamental idea of security and welfare is appealing to people generally is living in the Middle Ages.” As governor, he put forward social programs that included unemployment insurance, sickness and disability benefits, old age pensions, slum clearance, state aid to education (including the creation of the State University of New York), infrastructure projects (particularly highway construction), and pathbreaking anti-discrimination legislation.

Dewey attempted to distinguish his programs from similar Democratic programs by running a government that was acknowledged to be clean, honest, and efficient. His was pay-as-you-go liberalism, as he managed to implement his social programs while cutting taxes, reducing the state debt by over $100 million, and still achieving budget surpluses. He also argued that while Republicans and Democrats might agree on social ends, the parties would differ in their means, with moderate Republicans emphasizing individual freedom and economic incentive over collectivization. However, this relatively sophisticated position inevitably opened Dewey to conservative gripes of “me-tooism” and Democratic claims that he was offering a lesser version of the genuine article.

While some might claim there is a "me-too ism" in Dewey's ideas, they seemed both pragmatic and bold. He was able to provide forward and progressive thinking programs that were within budget and even cut taxes. There is something in Dewey's accomplishments that seem more fearless and ready to move the GOP forward. That is not what you hear in Specter's response.

Moderates have a long and proud history in the GOP and they will rise again. But it has to be with their own ideas and approaches and not simply going along with the Democrats.

No comments: