Paul Krugman unfairly slaps Obama around

Citing House Republican intransigency on the stimulus plan, the economist says the White House should never have made any concessions at all. But what about the Senate?

Published January 29, 2009 3:03PM (EST)

Paul Krugman is annoyed with President Obama. Referencing the fact that not a single House Republican voted for the White House-backed stimulus bill, Krugman writes:

Aren't you glad that Obama watered it down and added ineffective tax cuts, so as to win bipartisan support?

This is unfair. For at least a month now, Krugman has been acting as if Obama could unveil a new New Deal, or at the very least a stimulus plan considerably bigger than what is currently proposed, simply as an act of will, without regard to political reality.

Granted, the House Democrats can unilaterally pass pretty much whatever they want, although it should be noted that 11 centrist "Blue Dog" Democrats also opposed the House bill, so there are limits even to what some members of Obama's own party will accept. But Krugman should know better: The White House may have mistakenly thought it could sway a few moderate House Republicans to their side, but I strongly doubt that gestures to bipartisanship were primarily aimed at the House. They are directed, it seems to me, at the handful of Republican senators who are critical to getting any bill at all passed.

By my count, the Democrats now have 58 votes in the Senate (and will have 59 once Al Franken is seated). They need 60, because you can be well-assured that self-styled "freedom fighters" like South Carolina's Jim DeMint will be delighted to filibuster from here to kingdom come if they think they have a chance of sticking it to the president.

Maine's Olympia Snowe, by some reports, has signaled that she will support the stimulus. So maybe it's in the bag, and Obama, if he wanted to, could drop all the tax cuts, bump spending up to a trillion (or heck, two trillion, who's counting?) dollars, and waltz on through.

Or maybe, if he tried that, the moderate Republicans would scatter, and there would be no stimulus bill at all.

So what exactly is Paul Krugman saying? That Obama should make no attempt to gain Republican support, because having no bill at all is better than making pusillanimous compromises? I don't get it. For at least two years, passing any major legislation at all is going to require at least one Republican senator's vote. There is simply no way of getting around that.

There's also a longer-term perspective. I don't always agree with the Economist's Free Exchange bloggers, but whoever was manning the helm last night got it exactly right, I think. The House Republicans have badly misplayed their hand.

Republican legislators ... are coming off an historic political rout. In a nation that's suddenly, and overwhelmingly, Democratic, in which an extremely popular Democratic president faced with a major economic calamity has sought, seemingly in good faith, to build bipartisan support for his stimulus package, even dropping Democratic priorities from the bill (to the chagrin of progressive groups) to try and recruit GOP members to his side.

And every last Republican member of the House of Representatives voted against the bill, which passed all the same ... from a simple strategic standpoint, how does this make sense? A very popular president goes out of his way to earn Republican support, doesn't get it, and nonetheless passes his bill. To me this suggests one thing and one thing only -- Barack Obama shouldn't give two figs about what the GOP caucus has to say on any issue, large or small, for the remainder of this Congress' duration.

The GOP may already have determined that their best hope is to aim for a good year in 2010, but there are two long years, during which a lot of critical policy decisions will be made, before that time. Republicans may have just rendered themselves irrelevant in those debates.

The Free Exchange blogger may be making a mistake by equating House Republicans with the entire GOP. As already noted, Senate Republicans do have power. But the point stands. President Obama acted in apparent good faith, and was spurned by the House Republicans. And the world is watching. 2010 can't get here fast enough.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Paul Krugman U.s. Senate