The Senate's passage Tuesday of the economic recovery package followed a now-familiar 30 year pattern. The Democratic President Barack Obama, like Bill Clinton before him in 1993, faced a monolithic wall of GOP opposition to his economic program. But Republicans Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George W. Bush 20 years later enjoyed substantial Democratic support for their dangerously irresponsible and regressive tax cuts that as predicted drained the federal treasury. Now as then, for Republicans the road to economic stimulus is a one-way street.
After being blanked in the House, President Obama picked up a whopping three Republican votes in the Senate one day after his first presidential press conference. (At this point, prospects for any gains on the final bill emerging from the House and Senate conference seem dubious.) But while his quixotic quest to reach across the aisle may have come up empty for now, Obama can take some comfort from Bill Clinton's experience in 1993. After all, Clinton's package of stimulus programs and upper-income bracket tax increases not only preceded a record economic expansion, it happened to get no Republican votes in either house of Congress.
As the New York Times noted at the time:
"Historians believe that no other important legislation, at least since World War II, has been enacted without at least one vote in either house from each major party."
Inheriting massive budget deficits and unemployment topping 7% from Bush the Elder, Clinton's $496 billion program was nonetheless opposed by every single member of the GOP, as well as defectors from his own party. As the Times recounted, it took a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Al Gore to earn victory:
An identical version of the $496 billion deficit-cutting measure was approved Thursday night by the House, 218 to 216. The Senate was divided 50 to 50 before Mr. Gore voted. Since tie votes in the House mean defeat, the bill would have failed if even one representative or one senator who voted with the President had switched sides.
Texas Republican Phil Gramm (yes, that Phil Gramm) predicted, "I believe hundreds of thousands of people are going to lose their jobs...I believe Bill Clinton will be one of those people." Foreshadowing Barack Obama 16 years later, President Clinton responded, "This was not easy, but real change is never easy," adding, "We have laid a foundation for a renewal of the American dream." As it turned out, of course, Clinton was right and Gramm, as always, was wrong. (Alas, as Bill Kristol reminded Americans last week, all-out Republican stonewalling of Clinton's initiatives hardly ended at taxes.)
But while Bill Clinton could count on a unified, rejectionist front from Republicans, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush was similarly subjected to scorched-earth opposition from Democrats. The numbers tell the tale.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept to power promising to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget. And in 1981, he delivered on the first part of that promise. With substantial support from Democrats in the House and Senate, Reagan easily won the battle to enact the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, lauded by the hagiographers of the right as the largest tax cut in American history:
The House then completed the formality of giving final passage to the Administration bill by a vote of 323 to 107. Shortly before the House voted, the Reagan forces rolled to an 89-to-11 victory in the Senate. There, 37 Democrats voted with 52 Republicans for the bill.
In what might serve as an important lesson for the new Obama administration, Tip O'Neill acknowledged the political impact on Democrats of the Republican marketing machine's efforts to sell the three-year, 25% reduction in taxes:
This morning, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. uttered what sounded like a forecast of defeat. He told reporters that President Reagan's televised Monday night speech on taxes had touched off "a telephone blitz like this nation has never seen."
That, the Massachusetts Democrat said, and a Republican "nationwide advertising blitz" had exerted "a devastating effect" on the Democrats. "Once there is slippage, it is hard to hold," Mr. O'Neill added.
Alas, Democratic forecasts of unending sea of red ink came to pass. While Reagan kept his second pledge to boost the Pentagon's budget, his third promise to balance the budget went disastrously off the rails. With record-setting annual budget deficits running into the hundreds of billions of dollars, Reagan was forced to raise taxes twice (an inconvenient truth ignored by those same hagiographers). And it was the mounting Reagan debt that led to the breaking of George H.W. Bush's "no new taxes" promise and the subsequent Clinton deficit-reduction program.
Of course, Democratic acquiescence to Republican fiscal irresponsibility was repeated two decades later with President Bush's son.
Unlike the 7.6% unemployment rate and $1.2 trillion deficit Barack Obama inherited, George W. Bush arrived at the White House with a federal budget surplus and joblessness at 4.2% - and no mandate. But as every sentient being outside of the mainstream media will recall, Bush promised to slash taxes for the wealthiest Americans, including an end to the estate tax. And despite his loss of the popular vote to Al Gore and facing a 50-50 Senate, President Bush and his team made clear there would be no search for common ground with Democrats in pursuit of the 10-year, $1.6 trillion package.
And yet that spring, some Democrats supported it just the same. With only minor changes (the tax cuts were not permanent, the estate tax was lowered and not eliminated), the 2001 Bush tax cuts passed both houses of Congress with substantial numbers of Democrats voting in favor. While the House backed the original $1.6 trillion, the Senate (where Bush faced the opposition of John McCain and soon-be-ex Republican Jim Jeffords) initially voted for "only" a $1.2 trillion. Ultimately, the compromise conference bill came in $1.35 trillion and brought numerous Democrats along for the ride:
The bill passed the House by a vote of 240 to 154, with 28 Democrats and an independent joining all Republicans in voting yes. The Senate then passed it by a vote of 58 to 33. Twelve Democrats joined 46 Republicans in support of the bill in the Senate.
The rest, as they say, is history.
And so it goes. When its come to economic recovery legislation, Democrats extend a hand, Republicans tell them to talk to it.
(This piece is crossposted at Perrspectives.)