Outside Editorial: Politics today: Big Republican gamble

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009

In the face of President Obama's personal lobbying of the House Republicans, they have taken a major political gamble in voting in lockstep against his $819 billion economic stimulus package.

The success of House minority leader John Boehner and minority whip Eric Cantor in holding all 117 voting Republicans in line may bolster solidarity in the ranks. But doing so risks showing seeming indifference to deeply worried American workers.

Obama, playing a strong hand in terms of the afterglow of his glowing inauguration, may have failed to sell his huge economic recovery scheme to a single House Republican. Nevertheless, his conspicuous reaching out to them puts the GOP recalcitrance in the worst possible light.

By going personally to Capitol Hill and meeting with the House Republicans after only a week in the White House, and by entertaining a group of their leaders and wives there, Obama has put a gloss on his campaign promise to usher in an era of Washington post-partisanship.

The new president's acquiescence in removing from the monster legislation certain items criticized by the Republicans, such as $200 million for resodding Washington's Mall and family-planning support, has further demonstrated a new willingness to consult with the opposition party.

But the House Republicans, getting a taste of the same attitude they took toward the Democratic opposition in the George W. Bush years, are pushing back on grounds that they want more than what they consider mere window-dressing from Obama.

In writing the Democratic stimulus plan, both Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded the Republicans of who won the election. And the House Democrats, unlike the House Republicans often in the Bush days, at least permitted the opposition party to offer amendments in committee and on the House floor to the Democratic stimulus package.

Cantor said after the Republican solidarity against the package that its message to Obama was to "tell Speaker Pelosi to work with us." But without the numbers in the House to deny the majority its way, the GOP threat is pretty empty.

After the initial shock of the size of the economic bailouts -- both those in the waning days of the Bush administration and now in the Obama presidency -- ideological questions are being raised about the purpose as well as the feasibility and wisdom of pouring such huge amounts of federal money into an untrustworthy financial system.

Increasingly, the Obama stimulus package is being viewed by many Republicans, and described by them to the public, as a kind of gigantic Trojan Horse. That is, all manner of activist government projects have been tucked in, from environmental and health care initiatives to massive rehabilitation of the nation's rusting infrastructure.

These Republicans fear that Obama, in the guise of simply changing the tone of Washington politics, is out to recreate the dreaded welfare state at which they have so successfully ranted in the past. Talk of "nationalizing" banks, even as a temporary antidote to the current financial freeze, conjures up GOP fears of "socialism," that favorite conservative boogeyman.

But these concerns are bucking up against a general public nervousness that Americans' personal security, threatened by dwindling individual savings, retirement plans and possible home foreclosures, is seriously imperiled, requiring emergency action now.

This fear, coupled with the guarded hope of a new president and administration, gives Obama a strong hand to take drastic measures now, with or without the cooperation or just grudging acceptance from a dug-in Republican opposition.

As the fate of the economic stimulus package now moves to the Senate, where Obama will need at least a handful of GOP votes for passage, some tax sweeteners have been added as lures. But casting the vote as an ideological test, rather than as a bipartisan response to a national emergency, could endanger Obama's bold rescue scheme.

In a series of executive orders on other matters, the new president has taken quick action to roll back some of the worst policies of his predecessor. Now his skills, and his backbone, in dealing with legislative resistance to his most important challenge are being tested for the first time.



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