As predicted, House and Senate Republicans on Friday maintained their unified front in turning their backs on President Obama's economic recovery package. As it turns out, Obama wasn't the first Democrat to learn the hard way that bipartisanship is a one-way street for the GOP when it comes to the economy. In 1993, Bill Clinton's $496 billion stimulus and deficit-cutting program passed without a single Republican vote. But in 1981 and again in 2001, substantial numbers of Democrats acquiesced in backing regressive Reagan and Bush tax cuts which, also as predicted, drained the federal treasury.
The table above tells the tale. (Note that figures are not in real dollars adjusted for inflation.) While some turncoat Democrats helped Reagan and Bush sell their supply-side snake oil, Republicans then as now were determined to torpedo new Democratic presidents.
Obama's margins in the passage of the final $787 billion conference bill were almost unchanged from the earlier versions produced by the House and Senate. Despite the claim by Minority Whip and Newt Gingrich Mini-Me Eric Cantor four weeks ago that Obama's bipartisan outreach was a "very efficient process," the President was shut out again by Republicans in the House. In the Senate, the stimulus actually lost ground, as Ted Kennedy's absence and the no-vote of aborted Commerce Secretary Judd Gregg made the final tally 60-38. So much for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's January statement that the Obama stimulus proposal "could well have broad Republican appeal." Still, their opposition to the bill didn't prevent Republicans like John Mica (FL) and Don Young (AK) from claiming credit for projects it will fund in their districts.
If Barack Obama's experience with Republican obstructionism has been painful, Bill Clinton's was unprecedented. When Clinton's 1993 economic program scraped by without capturing the support of even one GOP lawmaker, the New York Times remarked:
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.
But while Bill Clinton met with total opposition from Republicans, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush was similarly subjected to scorched-earth politics from Democrats.
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.
Of course, Democratic acquiescence to Republican fiscal irresponsibility was repeated two decades later with President Bush.
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. 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 total size reduced from $1.6 trillion to $1.35 trillion), the 2001 Bush tax cuts passed both houses of Congress with substantial numbers of Democrats voting in favor:
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.
Ultimately, of course, history was not kind to the Republican obstructionists who put politics before public policy. Reagan's massive 1981 tax cuts led to even more massive budget deficits, forcing the Gipper to later raise taxes twice. George W. Bush, too, saw the federal government hemorrhage red ink and presided over the worst eight-year economic record of any modern American president. Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Clinton's tenure in the 1990's witnessed rapid economic growth, low unemployment, balanced budgets and projected surpluses.
As for Barack Obama, it's clear that he's in for more of the same treatment as Bill Clinton. No doubt with a twinkle in his eye, Karl Rove said Thursday of the Republicans' stimulus stonewalling, "they are playing their hand extraordinarily well." Through their onstructionism, he said, "House Republicans have used the stimulus bill to redefine their party." And Bill Kristol, who almost single-handedly rallied the GOP to block the Clinton health care plan in 1994, last week called on Republicans to give Barack Obama a repeat on the stimulus - and just about everything else:
"But the loss of credibility, even if they jam it through, really hurts them on the next, on the next piece of legislation. Clinton got through his tax increases in '93, it was such a labor and he had to twist so many arms to do it and he became so unpopular...
...That it made, that it made it so much easier to then defeat his health care initiative. So, it's very important for Republicans who think they're going to have to fight later on on health care, fight later on maybe on some of the bank bailout legislation, fight later on on all kinds of issues."
And so it goes. Even in defeat, the Republicans want to party like it's 1993.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)