Slamming the stimulus

When President Obama decided to shine the spotlight on Elkhart, Ind., on Monday, thousands of Hoosiers snatched up the tickets to his event, packing an auditorium for a chance to hear Obama pitch the stimulus package — his answer to a tattered economy that has left 15.3 percent of the county’s residents unemployed.

Their congressman, who has heard the pitch but isn’t buying it, wasn’t in attendance. Republican Rep. Mark Souder, who has represented the 3rd district since 1994, even turned down Obama’s invitation to fly there with him on Air Force One, along with several other congressmen whose minds Obama is still trying to change.

“I believe it would be ungracious, to bash the stimulus after going on the plane,” said Souder. “I wasn’t going with him to sell the stimulus; I believe it’s terrible for the country.”

Having voted with the Democrats on alternative energy, the auto bailout, extending unemployment benefits and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) — for which he received 3,000 angry e-mails — Souder was a natural target for President Obama’s campaign for bipartisan support. But the representative to the No. 1 manufacturing district in the country (in both percentage and number of jobs) argues the package is too big, comes too soon and doesn’t target the problems besetting his constituents.

“It’s clear that unless the credit markets reopen, manufacturing won’t recover,” said Souder, adding that since the initial TARP installment was only recently released and the guidelines for the second installment were announced this week, “we don’t even know if what we have done has worked.” Moreover, Souder said, the jobs the stimulus bill creates are either short-term jobs or jobs that won’t kick in for years. He proposes $38 billion to extend unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits, $20 billion for the $15,000 tax credit for homebuyers and $30 billion for traditional highway and mass transit infrastructure.

Souder said Tuesday he recognizes the political risks he is taking opposing the bill, adding that “yesterday was as hard as it gets.” He called his pro-life, pro-gun, pro-God and highly unionized constituents “the ultimate swing voters.” They have consistently supported Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) but gave President George W. Bush a 68-34 margin of victory there in 2004. Sen. John McCain in November won the 3rd district by six points, but Souder said his poor performance there cost him the entire state.

A proud “populist Republican” — as opposed to a “country club Republican” — Souder believes his constituents are inherently conservative about debt and argues another trillion dollars of deficit will raise interest rates to a point where nobody will be able to buy a pickup or a house. As he described the strain his constituents are feeling, and the stories he hears on the street and in church, Souder choked up. “This isn’t a theoretical debate,” he said. “If you live in your district, it’s your family and your neighbors.”

Souder has crossed the aisle many times through the years in ways Obama was hoping Republicans would now, but Souder said the president’s bipartisan overtures won’t win him any votes this time. “In our conference Obama was amazing,” he said. “But he was a very articulate spokesman for Keynesian economics, and we are not Keynesian. His worldview is so different.”

Since the economy began plummeting last summer Souder, who has an M.B.A., has been devouring books on finance. He has already declared himself a “no” vote on whatever comes out of the House-Senate conference this week because, he said, the bill cannot be rescued without starting over.

“I believe this is incredibly terrible economic policy,” he said, “even if it costs me my election.”