GOP unity in House was a blunder

Republican congressional leaders may have won a victory by browbeating every last House conference member into opposing the stimulus package. But they may lose the war.

It didn’t have to be this way. Some Republicans should have been permitted, even  encouraged, to back President Obama’s plan.

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Republicans in industrial states, particularly those in the most depressed economies like Michigan’s, should have been given a pass to support the stimulus if that was their preference. It’s an old-time legislative strategy that Republicans should have utilized. The Democrats were smart enough to let their conservatives defect. Even if a dozen Republicans had defected, Obama would have still been denied the chance to say he had bipartisan support. The press would have insisted on reporting that the voting was generally along party lines, as they did in the Senate, where some elephants wandered off the reserve. But some GOP defectors facing tough reelection challenges would have been able to leverage their yes votes for victory in 2010.

Strict party-line voting made the issue more cut-and-dried than was necessary. Allowing scattered GOP votes for the stimulus in key states would have muddled the issue enough to allow Republicans to claim victory regardless of the eventual outcome of the stimulus effort. Either “some Republicans” were courageous and insightful enough to back the stimulus plan — if it works as intended — or, alternatively, “most Republicans” were courageous and insightful enough to oppose the measure — if it fails. The outlier Republicans would have been an insurance policy against unexpected success. By forcing across-the-board unity, Republicans were guilty of putting all their eggs in one basket. What if Obama’s plan appears to be working in 2010?

The unified strategy also put Republicans on the wrong side of the politics of the issue. Most voters favor the stimulus. Yes, there are a few polls suggesting the issue is almost polarizing, but not many. Most record solid support. In particular, support predominates among independents and swing voters. Majorities of Republicans may oppose the measure, but catering to that ever-smaller partisan base will only accelerate the downward spiral of the party. It’s the middle-ground voters who need to be the object of our political affections, particularly in purple states.

By enforcing partisan fidelity, leadership also got the policy wrong. Republicans should have listened to a business leader like former Michigan Gov. John Engler, the last Republican to prove he could tame a Rust Belt state. Said Engler, now head of the National Association of Manufacturers: “Nearly 600,000 jobs have been lost since the beginning of this year and almost 4 million jobs have been lost in the past year. Day after day, more companies are forced to reduce their workforce to stay financially stable. Our member companies from around the country are telling us they agree with Congress and the administration that decisive and immediate action is critically necessary to spur economic revitalization.”

Now, which members of the congressional Republican leadership cadre have better conservative credentials than Engler’s? Who can tell Engler and the companies he represents that they know more about the business economics of this situation? Based on Engler’s analysis, congressional approval was “critically necessary.” Maybe House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and crew should have encouraged, at the very least, some members from states like Michigan to heed Engler’s counsel.

Most congressional Republicans were principled in opposing the growth in government represented by the stimulus legislation. But that message got lost in the shuffle, except on Fox News and conservative websites. In the mainstream media, the message was sent that all Republicans are obstructionist ideologues who insist on their tired old tax-cuts message while the nation smolders. When the 2010 election rolls around, we may be unified once again in defeat, this time at the polls.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP
candidates and causes since 1988.