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10 Thoughts as Obama prepares to sign the Big Bill

1. Just work, baby.  I have no idea whether the stimulus bill will work, or do enough good to be worth what it will cost.

1. Just work, baby.  I have no idea whether the stimulus bill will work, or do enough good to be worth what it will cost. And, like some critics of the bill, I’m seriously worried about the amount of debt we are charging to our kids’ credit cards. The deficit, we will certainly get. The stimulus, we hope we will get. But I’m taking a leap of faith on the argument of most economists that doing nothing is not an option, and of most political analysts that this is the deal that could pass Congress.

Even more important than the debt we will leave to the next generation is the economy we will leave them. So, with apologies to Rush Limbaugh, I hope it succeeds. And, if by succeeding, it gives the lie to various articles of Mr. Limbaugh’s faith, that’s an outcome up with which I can definitely put.

2. What we don’t know and may never know. No one knows if it will work and even down the road, we won’t really know whether it did work. A year from now, the unemployment and foreclosure rates, the GDP and the Dow will be either higher or lower than they are now.  But the argument over whether the Big Bill made them higher or lower than they might otherwise be will continue. There is still a healthy argument among economic and political historians about whether, on balance, the New Deal made things better or worse. Their grandchildren will be having the same arguments about this one.

3. Your parents’ politics. This gets (if I can smuggle in an extra politically incorrect point here, that could probably be shoehorned into half the pieces I write) to a problem with democratic theory, at least to the extent that said theory depends on the idea of the “informed electorate” we’re always talking about. Most Americans lack the economic knowledge and vocabulary to develop an informed personal opinion on the best way to stimulate an economy. Even the most informed among us generally adopt the view that is promoted by whichever side of the partisan/ideological divide we currently embrace. We are more likely to hear, remember and embrace the views of experts and political leaders on our own “side.” Do liberals find Paul Krugman more convincing because he is more convincing? (He is, though.) And most of us don’t change partisan/ideological sides during our entire adulthoods. The single best predictor of whether an individual American would have voted for or against this bill is probably the partisan identity of his parents.

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4. Why did the Republicans, except for three, oppose the bill?  I’m tired of all the anger against Republicans who voted “no.” I believe they were mostly voting their consciences.

 I’m not being willfully naïve. I’m sure there were wobbly Republicans whose arms were twisted to vote the party line (same for Dems). U of M Congress expert Kathryn Pearson has done research showing that those who break party ranks pay a price when it comes to the benefits and opportunities that party leaders can hand out, like choice committee assignments. Plenty of crass political calculations were surely made. Plenty of politicians have trouble thinking beyond their own reelection or their desire to see their party pick up seats at the midterm. And I know flim-flammery, demagoguery and rank hypocrisy were committed in the effort to portray the big bill as a Christmas tree full of worthless pork. (Ugh. Pork on a Christmas tree. Who mixes your metaphors, wretch?)

But for all that, I’m willing to entertain the pretty good possibility that most of those who voted nay did so — not because they hate America or hate Obama or would rather wreck the country than see the new Dem prez get off to a good start — but because they think the bill is a bad idea and will cost more than it will accomplish. Just think about Minnesota’s three Republican representatives. Do you think anyone had to offer carrots, wave sticks or marshal arguments to get Michele Bachmann, John Kline or Erik Paulsen to vote “no.” And most of those who voted no represent districts where the majority of voters oppose the bill. (Almost certainly true of Bachmann and Kline. Paulsen is from a swing district.)

I do agree that when you vote “no,” you have some obligation to say what you would do instead. I gather the Republican answer alternative was more tax cuts. I think that would  be folly. I’m just saying it’s sincere and they are entitled to their view and, as duly elected members, they are entitled to vote their view. I’m a little tired of every analysis being a political analysis.

4a. If the advertised new post-partisan moment lasted a nanosecond,  maybe (Obama implied this at his first big press conference) you have to build to it slowly by at least discussing respectfully (if not voting) across party lines and acknowledging the other side’s patriotism and good intentions.

5. There are no atheists in foxholes and there are no fiscal conservatives on the brink of a Depression. (I stole that line from some TV analyst, but I can’t remember who.) Before Reagan came along and changed the definition of fiscal conservatism to “the belief that tax cuts are the best policy in every situation,” it used to mean “the belief that except when necessary to stimulate the economy, governments should balance their budgets.” Neither major party can currently claim to be the true party of old-fashioned fiscal conservatism. But (I know I’m going soft here) mocking Republican expressions of concern for the debt by throwing Bushonomics in their face only creates a dynamic where neither party can claim to be concerned about debt because neither party can show that they always were.

The correct answer to those concerns is the Keynsian argument that this is not the time for budget-balancing. Borrow now, to stimulate, reduce debt later. Trouble is, later never seems to arrive.

Among the reasons for my current Obamian leap of faith is that he has said on several occasions that he gets this, and that he plans to tackle the entitlements issue (which, don’t kid yourself, will require great googobs of pain, er, make that “shared sacrifice.”)

6. The rise of Susan Collinsism. The current math of the Senate makes Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania – the three Senate Repubs who made it impossible for the other 38 Senate Repubs to filibuster the stimulus bill — enormously powerful. On the next issue, it could be two or three different Republicans, but these are the three most “moderate” Senate Repubs and are likely candidates to play a similar role in future. (By the merest of coincidences, Obama carried Maine by 17 percentage points, Pennsylvania by 11. But 31 of the 38 senators who voted against the bill came from states that Obama lost. Maybe I’m drifting back toward a cynical political analysis.)

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Collins, Snowe and Specter may, for the moment, occupy a position similar to that of Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Simply because he is the swing vote on issues that divide the liberal and conservative blocs, he controls the outcome. Just this morning, I heard liberal Rep. Peter DeFazio (D.- Ore.) complaining that the bill’s managers gave up too much, in the tradeoff between spending and tax cuts, to get the three Republican votes. But he didn’t say, and wasn’t asked, whether the bill signing would be scheduled for this morning if those compromises weren’t made.

Maybe this arrangement will be a point of stability. Democrats and the Obama Administration may have to calculate into their strategy on other issues the question of what it will take to bring the Three Moderates on board. Maybe, for those who worry about unbridled power by a single party, it’s even a good thing. I’m not there yet, but many billions of dollars of pet spending ideas that the House put into the bill did come out in the Senate.

7. Would Coleman have been the fourth? When Norm Coleman was put on the defensive in 20087 about being a loyal Bushy, he would often mention how similar his voting record and party loyalty rankings were to Susan Collins. He has tried to forge his identity around the idea reaching across the aisle to get things done. In today’s Senate, he would probably rank with Collins, Snowe and Specter as the four most moderate Repubs.

But in a Strib op-ed about the stimulus, Coleman came out against the stimulus bill:

“Unfortunately, the something that government intends to do to us in the next week or so may do far more harm to our economy than good. Both legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and the proposal before the Senate would spend breathtaking amounts of taxpayer money on too much, too broadly and too ineffectively to jump-start our economy.”

That piece, and a companion piece by Al Franken, are full of ironies from the recent campaign. Coleman often lectured Franken on don’t-let-the-perfect-be-the-enemy-of-the-good theme. You can’t vote against a whole bill that accomplishes something important (it was often presecription drugs for Medicare)because there’s something in it that you don’t like (it was the provision prohibiting the government from negotiating on the price of the drugs). In these two op-eds, they’ve basically switched sides, with Franken taking the it’s-not-perfect-but-we-need-the-bill position and Coleman criticizing specific provisions.

8. How do we feel about the filibuster? Point 6 leads to point 8. If not for the requirement of 60 votes to pass most things in the Senate, the Democrats – who after all did win the election – could have passed their bill and taken the credit for its brilliance or the blame for its excesses. The filibuster (it’s a historical fluke that arose by accident, it’s not in the Constitution, it used to require a two-third vote to cut off debate) is an American oddity. Most democratic systems do not require a supermajority to pass bills. The majority party or coalition can pretty much govern. It’s inevitable (and inevitably self-serving) that the party that controls the Senate by less than a filibuster-proof majority finds itself questioning the merits of the rule that allows 41 senators to frustrate 59 (remember in 2005 when it was Republicans threatening what was called the “nuclear option?” ) The fact that a change in the filibuster would always advantage one party over the other makes such discussionis hopelessly partisan and hopelessly hopeless. But if we were starting with a blank piece of paper, would write the filibuster on it?

9. The catbird seat. Several Republicans (surprisingly led by John McCain, who has often broken party ranks) were furious with the Moderate Three. But, as a matter of politics, the Repubs may have been well served by their turncoats. If the 41 Repubs had held ranks and blocked the bill, they might have risked political ruin. The public may have mixed feelings about what they want done, but they want something done, not an immediate rush to stalemate. Now Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will have their bill, will be held accountable for whether it works. If it lays an egg, the Repubs (except for the Three) will be in perfect I-told-you-so position.

10. Can you spell 2010?  The filibuster issue could be rendered moot after the 2010 midterms. It’s pitiful, sick and wrong to keep looking ahead to the next election, but I can’t help myself. Historically, the party in the White House loses seats in a midterm election. But, as things stand now, the lineup of 2010 Senate races shapes up very favorably for more Dem gains (and maybe the Minnesota election of 2008 will also be over by then.)

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11. Fill in your favorite analysis point here.