Why No Republicans in the House Voted for the Stimulus

The Democrats’ fiscal stimulus package failed to garner even a single vote from the Republicans, even after President Obama met with the entire Republican caucus and invited Congressional leadership over for a post-vote cocktail party. I appreciate the genteel, almost quaint notion that negotiation between parties could be facilitated by an honest, face to face encounter, but I hope no one at the White House anticipated a different result.

Media coverage of politics, like media of coverage of sports, tends to try to place every event in the context of a personality driven narrative. Of course, this make for more interesting journalism, but if we really wanted to get a better understanding of sports or politics, we would spend less time focusing on personalities and more time focusing on the basics of how the game is played. In sports, this means that journalists tend to over-estimate the importance of easily measured, readily observed skills (PPG in basketball, W-L in baseball) that may belie their actual value. In politics, this means journalists tend to focus on the soap opera of alliances and confrontations, instead of the structural incentives facing political actors. (Incidently, it is also why baseball stat geeks and political officiandos both love Nate Silver.)

In this case, the Republicans had no incentive to vote for the fiscal stimulus package and no amount of bipartisan happy talk – or even genuine policy negotiation – was going to change their minds. For politicians, its not about meetings and cocktail parties – it’s always about their next election. This doesn’t make the Republicans evil; in fact the opposite, they are acting exactly as we would expect them to act given their situation. Their personality doesn’t even really come into it. In this case, Republicans had every incentive to vote against the bill and very few incentives to vote for the bill, regardless of it’s content or how deeply Obama gazed into their eyes. Their eyes are on 2010, when they all must face re-election.

In all likelihood, the stimulus package will have had some positive effect on the economy by next fall, but no matter how well it works it is unlikely the economy will be doing well. The question voters will be asking is, “do we give the democrats credit for improving the economy, or do we fault the democrats for not improving the economy enough?” The Republicans, I think wisely, believed that voters will choose the latter, and penalize the Democrats for having spent all this money without getting the economy back on track.

Obama wasn’t after Republican votes in the house just to stoke his bipartisan credentials. The move for Republican support was mostly about getting political cover. The stimulus is like the bailout – no matter how well designed it is, it is a necessary evil and there will be details within it that are simply bad publicity (ie, taxpayer money will go to a ridiculous sounding project). The party line vote means that no matter what happens in the next two years, if the economy is still doing poorly in fall of 2008 (as almost everyone thinks that it will, no matter what the government does) the Republicans can run against the failed Democrat [sic] Tax and Spend approach to fixing our economy. They will not own the outcome of the economy in any way, shape, or form.

The most salient political fact is that the adminstration didn’t need the Republicans and the Republicans didn’t need the administration. The fact of the matter is that the success or failure of the policy will ultimately determine it’s political impact. As a government without the need to negotiate with the minority, it simply doesn’t matter what the opposition might say – it only matters if you can produce results.

Surely, the administration are hoping to make the Republicans in the House look extreme and stubborn, and contrast Obama’s gregariousness and popularity with Mitch McConnell’s…. neither of those things. This is undoubtedly a savvy move, at least in the short term. However, political commentators and strategists – particularly those in the media – should be more clear in recognizing that power drives politics, not personalities.

Of Limited Political Utility

Of Limited Political Utility

Whether or not the package as currently constructed is well designed is a subject for another post (say, later today). As for the politics of the bailout – it’s messaging content and the efficiency of the use of political capital – I think it depends on what Obama’s strategy is going forward. If he pivots off the vote to push an aggressive agenda, while framing the Republicans as the party of thoughtless opposition, he is headed in the right direction. If he doubles down on the attempt to gain bipartisan consensus, he is headed for serious trouble.

Partisanship is an inevitable outcome of the American political system – it is a feature, not a bug. Certainly we can disagree without be disagreeable, but no one should kid themselves about the prospect for a new era of good feelings between parties. Bipartisanship is the Batting Average of politics – the only people who think it’s important are the people who don’t understand the way the game works.

UPDATE: Atrios said it best:

If I were advising the Republicans I would’ve told them to vote against the stimulus package. I would tell them to make the point clearly that if they were in charge, the bill would be a different bill. They’re a competing political party and they need to, you know, highlight the fact that their vision for America is actually different. I appreciate that members of both parties don’t always toe the line completely, but on a bill as big as this it makes perfect sense for it to play out as it did.

Of course the flip side is that Dems should’ve pushed the best plan that could pass the Senate instead of pushing some pointless fantasy about bipartisanship.