Saturday Night Live recently parodied Republicans in Congress as clueless chumps who delight in their "complete political irrelevance" and argue over whether Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh is the smartest man in America. Trust the satirists to get what the pundits did not. During the debate over the stimulus bill, the commentariat repeatedly argued that Barack Obama was losing the spin war; and Republican members of Congress outnumbered their Democratic counterparts by nearly two to one on cable news. But out in the real world, 67 percent of the public approved of the way Obama was handling the package, and 58 percent disapproved of Republicans in Congress. Six in ten Americans supported the stimulus, including more than one in four Republicans (as well as a cohort of Republican governors). By that measure, more than fifty Congressional Republicans should have supported the stimulus bill. Instead, only three voted aye--Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. The GOP nearly unanimously chose to be the party of No.
It wasn't for lack of courtship by Obama. To win GOP backing, the president visited Republicans on Capitol Hill, invited them over for beers at the White House and nominated a conservative and fiscal hawk as his commerce secretary. He loaded up the stimulus bill with unnecessary tax cuts and consented when a group of so-called centrists slashed spending for schools, food stamps, rural broadband and aid to struggling states, reducing the overall spending package to $507 billion. What did Obama get in return? A bunch of no votes, a lot of complaining and a graceless exit by Judd Gregg, who abruptly resigned as commerce secretary designee without giving the White House a proper heads-up; he then promptly voted against the stimulus bill.
The truth is that the GOP in Congress is much smaller, more conservative and more geographically homogeneous than it was even two years ago. There is not a single Republican from New England left in the House. Moderate Republicans are a virtual oxymoron; those who remain--like the three who voted for the stimulus--are tarred by their fellow party members as Benedict Arnolds. The rest of the Republicans in Congress represent primarily red states and red districts and can indulge in opposition at all costs.
The Obama team says it has learned an important early lesson from all this. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel admitted that "there's an insatiable appetite for the notion of bipartisanship here, and we allowed that to get ahead of ourselves." Or as Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod put it, "There's a different conversation in this town often than what's going on in the country."
And so Obama went back on the trail, making the case for the stimulus in Elkhart, Indiana, where unemployment rates recently hit 15 percent. And he unveiled his mortgage relief plan in Mesa, Arizona, where more than half the homes for sale are in foreclosure. Taking the conversation about the economy outside Washington isn't just good political theater; it's good politics. As we've seen in the debate over the stimulus, the most compelling case for a broad and fair economic recovery won't come from inside the Beltway but from the country as a whole.
In November, Americans didn't vote for Gregg as commerce secretary or for more huge tax cuts for the super wealthy. They voted for good jobs, universal healthcare, energy independence and an end to the war in Iraq. For Obama to claim this mandate and enact a broader recovery plan, it will take a vocal public push.