I’m not surprised by this: I think Republicans have acted (and prematurely popped open champagne) on two assumptions that aren’t true right now.
The first is that voters rejected them in 2006 and 2008 because they spent too much money; the subtext is that voters oppose big government spending, and reward the party that cuts it down. This seems like a tautological argument that’s not backed up by history — how much did former President Ronald Reagan cut spending, after all?
I know this will distress some people to learn that the American public for the most part doesn’t care about spending, but this isn’t really news. If runaway spending really was a concern, more people would know about Gramm/Rudman/Hollings and it might actually be followed and include “off budget” spending, we wouldn’t have to have signs in Times Square counting the national debt, and the Concord Coalition would be more than the topic of a trivia question. Weigel’s observation is spot on, but it isn’t actually news, and one of my favorite bloggers, Daniel Larison, has been pointing this very fact out for, well, months, if not years. Here is a snippet from September, when he was merely irritated at the GOP silliness:
I can’t give an exact date, but at least as far as domestic policy is concerned I believe it must have been in March or April 2007, or at least no more than a few weeks after McCain’s announcement of his candidacy. By the fall of 2007 one of his favorite shots at the Democrats was his line (”I was tied up at the time”) about the earmark for a museum in Woodstock that Clinton had supported. Throughout the primaries McCain’s main line of criticism against the GOP was that it had engaged in too much wasteful spending, by which he meant spending earmarked for various pork projects, and for most of 2008 the issue for McCain, as well as the House minority leadership and many Republican pundits, has been reforming earmarks. One reason for this preoccupation has been the utterly mistaken impression that the 2006 midterms were a punishment for the GOP’s excessive use of earmarks. (To his credit, the head of the NRCC, Tom Cole, has acknowledged that earmarks had nothing to do with the defeat in ’06.) Naturally, having made this practically the centerpiece of his domestic agenda (before drilling became the obsession), he chose a soul running mate reputed for her acceptance of earmarks that McCain himself considered wasteful. Of course, it is a testament to the establishment nature of the GOP leadership and of McCain himself that something as insiderish and obscure to most voters as earmarks has acquired such centrality in the Republican presidential campaign. Nothing says that the GOP has been in power too long better than its insistence that its main failing was attaching too many pork projects to its legislation.
In October, a shift in tone fro irritated to disgusted:
This is one reason why I find the Republican and mainstream conservative turn in the last month or so to little more than excuse-making to be rather troubling, because it repeats the same errors that were made before and after the 2006 election. The GOP lesson from the ‘06 defeat was apparently nothing more than this: we really need to get a handle on earmarks! After the election this time we are likely to hear about how the right should have combated voter fraud more assiduously.
A few weeks ago, he moved from disgusted to fatalistic and bemused:
There is something else about the stimulus business that annoys me. The newfound zeal for fiscal responsibility, such as it is, reveals one of the fundamental problems of the GOP leadership, which is its completely unfounded notion that the GOP is now on the skids because of wasteful spending (and earmarks!). This sounds nice, but there seems to be no reason to think this has any merit as a matter of electoral politics. The anti-earmark mania that dominated the presidential campaign and which seems to control the minds of House leaders has prevailed yet again, suggesting that once again Republican leaders have learned absolutely nothing about why they have suffered two major electoral drubbings. The leadership’s flailing, much like McCain’s during the early days of the financial crisis, sends the message that the GOP has nothing to say to the public that cannot be summed up by the phrase wasteful spending. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t oppose wasteful spending, of course, but when they have absolutely nothing else to talk about (except, God help us, the return of the Fairness Doctrine) it is more than a little frustrating to watch.
And while we are all having a chuckle at the absurdity of the Republicans, Democrats would be wise to go back to review Larison’s criticisms leveled at Obama, in which he makes the case that Obama’s chief flaw is that he is too establishment and mainstream (Bacevich fans will note the agreement between Bacevich and Larison regarding Obama and the national security apparatus and foreign policy). Regardless, back to Weigel’s point- of course the Republicans are misreading things, but this is neither a new or shocking development.
*** Update ***
And Larison writes about this again, today:
Suppose for a moment that all observers of the debate agreed that the House Republicans were right that the stimulus bill isn’t fast or effective enough and that it is larded down with all sorts of unnecessary spending, and let’s go one step beyond that and grant for the sake of argument that, say, a payroll tax cut alternative is far superior to what is being offered. Voting against the stimulus bill would still make no sense politically unless you believe two things: 1) the public is hostile to vast increases in spending; 2) the public judges these matters based on a high degree of wonkish detail. The first assumption is appealing to those of us who are hostile to vast increases in spending, but we make up a small portion of the electorate and are unrepresentative of the rest of the country. For that matter, such people make up a small portion of the GOP itself, which is why the sudden return of the GOP’s anti-spending enthusiasm seems so bizarre to me. Of all the times to acquire zeal for austerity, which is rarely popular in the best of times and risky even for popular majority parties, they have chosen the middle of a recession after having taken two huge electoral drubbings. This is something like discovering antiwar scruples only in the middle of an invasion. The second assumption about how the public judges the debate is simply fantastic. At most, these measures are judged by the parties’ stated priorities and their rhetoric.
Go read it.