This Can’t Be What Obama, Pelosi and Reid Expected

Posted February 6, 2009 at 3:55pm

Either Congressional Democrats went from undeniably brilliant to unbelievably inept in just a few weeks, or being in the majority in Congress isn’t nearly as easy as being the opposition.

[IMGCAP(1)]Those seem to be the two obvious alternatives that follow from the problems Democrats have had selling an economic stimulus package that began with considerable public support and the backing of a popular president. I’ll cast my vote for the second alternative.

As Republicans on Capitol Hill are now finding, being in the minority actually can be a lot of fun, even if it is inherently frustrating. They can’t dictate results, but they sure can cause problems for Democratic leaders.

However, Democrats shouldn’t overreact to their current problems, which range from the party’s handling of the economic stimulus bill to the tax problems of some of the president’s Cabinet nominees. Even with all of their party’s recent stumbles, the president and Congressional Democrats will end up looking pretty good if the economy rebounds and Americans start to feel better about things.

It’s the results that matter, even if the process was part stumbling and part bumbling.

But Democrats also shouldn’t delude themselves that they merely were too low-key for too long in pushing their economic plan and that if only they were louder, they wouldn’t have encountered any problems.

In this fight, Democrats aren’t the only ones with a potentially appealing message. They miscalculated if they believed that they could easily pass an $800 billion or $900 billion bill merely by pointing to the current state of the economy and gloomy forecasts of the future. That might well have been enough to get a bill to the president’s desk if Congressional Republicans had simply rolled over, but this time the GOP didn’t.

Instead, Republicans — aided by a handful of Democrats who are worried about some of the spending items — have succeeded in redefining the bill from one that will jump-start the economy by creating jobs and helping people deal with the housing crisis to one that is an ideological Christmas tree that doesn’t put people to work, help them pay their mortgages or resuscitate the economy.

By focusing on computers for the Department of Agriculture, new energy-efficient cars for the government and money for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Washington, D.C., sewer system, Republicans have defined the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan as benefiting bureaucrats and other government employees, not the average American.

On Thursday night, at the House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, Va., President Barack Obama began his counterattack, arguing that millions of more Americans will lose their jobs if his economic recovery program is not passed quickly.

He may be right, but Republicans have an easy answer: Spending $198 million to compensate Filipino veterans who fought in World War II, or $2 million to train Native Americans to become plumbers and pipefitters, or $150 million for renovations to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, or even $3.26 billion for the Western Area Power Administration won’t strike most voters as the kind of spending that will help rescue the economy from recession.

Yes, the dollar figures for some of these items are trivial, but they provide plenty of fodder for critics of the overall package.

The Democrats’ fundamental problem is that while Americans like the country’s new president and, so far, think that he is doing a good job, they continue to have significant doubts about Congress and are disinclined to believe that Washington always has their best interest at heart.

That means that Republican complaints about Democratic priorities find a receptive audience, at least as long as GOP legislators can point to specific items in the bill that will strike voters as not addressing the nation’s short-term economic problems.

The fight over the economic stimulus bill raises questions about how the president will deal with House and Senate Democrats over the long haul. No matter what happens with the stimulus bill — and some sort of bill is certain to be signed into law sooner or later — the debate over spending has exposed divisions within the Democratic Party.

Democrats would be wise to remember that they have plenty of time until the 2010 elections to achieve many of their goals and that those elections could actually increase the their Senate majority, giving the party’s left even more clout.

And they should not forget that the political dynamic has changed dramatically now that they are in charge and George W. Bush is out of the White House. Congressional Republicans have a rediscovered freedom that will make their arguments far more formidable, both on Capitol Hill and around the country, than they have been for the past couple of years.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.