To Obama's Progressive Critics: Take a Deep Breath
Note: this is a guest post from Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, offering his own take on the debate over President Obama's handling of the stimulus legislation. We invite and intend to publish different points of view on this subject, as part of our continuing debate on the extent to which Democrats should accomodate, on philosophical, strategic or tactical grounds, "bipartisan" approaches to the administration's agenda.
The stimulus plan, President Obama’s first serious attempt to change the way Washington works, is hitting a stonewall of partisan rigidity. Republicans are the worst offenders, but Obama is also getting strafed from his left.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman came out blasting yesterday, all but calling the president a postpartisan wimp.
Obama’s stimulus plan, he said, is too small to plug the hole in our economy created by faltering private demand. And he chided the president for allowing a bipartisan group of Senate moderates to strip various provisions out of the House bill. In language that could qualify for a Pulitzer Prize in hyperbole, Krugman claimed that the dastardly centrists would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs and cut vital health care and food programs, while offering new a fat tax break to affluent homeowners.
On food stamps and aid to states, Krugman makes a fair point. But some of the education provisions are more questionable and the housing credit, properly targeted on first-time homebuyers, could help to halt the slide in housing prices. In general, Krugman’s outrage seems out of proportion to the actual differences between the House and Senate bills.
If size matters, as Krugman insists, it’s worth pointing out that the Senate plan is bigger ($827 billion vs. the House’s $819 billion). Many economists believe that the plan’s details matter less than its scale, because they believe what’s essential now is to boost the confidence and “animal spirits” of U.S. consumers, businesses and lenders.
Besides, the House and Senate are very different institutions and are almost always going to serve up different versions of bills. Reconciling them is why we have legislative conferences. What’s more, Obama only has 58 Democratic votes in the Senate, two shy of a filibuster-proof majority. He needs to pick up a handful of GOP votes to get the bill into conference. The real world choice we face is not between $827 billion and whatever larger figure Krugman believes Washington must spend to rescue the economy, but between roughly $800 billion and a smaller package.
What really seems to bug Krugman, though, is Obama’s postpartisan vision. Instead of wasting time reaching out to Republicans, the president ought to reach for a baseball bat. By strenuous campaigning against GOP obstructionism, Obama could remind voters of why they liked him in the first place, and turn up the heat on his conservative opponents. The problem with that theory is that voters responded powerfully to Obama’s promise to end partisan paralysis in Washington rather than pursue a Democratic version of the Rovian strategy of maximum feasible polarization.
It is galling, of course, to hear Hill Republicans assert that they are simply standing on their “small government” principles. This would be more convincing if the party hadn’t colluded in an orgy of earmarking, borrowing and spending during the Bush years – crowned by a new $8 trillion prescription drug entitlement for seniors.
Perhaps, as Krugman complains, Obama waited too long before countering GOP attempts to conflate stimulus with pork.
But in eschewing the strident partisanship that many on the left pine for, Obama is keeping faith with the people who elected him. He’s also maneuvering the Republicans into a position where they appear as dogmatic, lock-step partisans –and politically impotent to boot, since they can’t block a big stimulus bill from passing. And let’s face it: While the president has tried to foster a new spirit of comity and cooperation, the stimulus plans make very few concessions to GOP demands when you look at the big picture.
So let’s all take a deep breath. If progressives want Obama to succeed, they need to avoid ideological purism and reflexive partisanship, and give their new president the tactical leeway he needs to maneuver around Washington’s formidable obstacles to change.