So has Mr. Obama learned from this experience? Early indications aren’t good.
For rather than acknowledge the failure of his political strategy and the damage to his economic strategy, the president tried to put a postpartisan happy face on the whole thing. “Democrats and Republicans came together in the Senate and responded appropriately to the urgency this moment demands,” he declared on Saturday, and “the scale and scope of this plan is right.”
No, they didn’t, and no, it isn’t.
- Paul Krugman, "The Destructive Center," today.
All in all, the centrists’ insistence on comforting the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted will, if reflected in the final bill, lead to substantially lower employment and substantially more suffering.
But how did this happen? I blame President Obama’s belief that he can transcend the partisan divide — a belief that warped his economic strategy.
After all, many people expected Mr. Obama to come out with a really strong stimulus plan, reflecting both the economy’s dire straits and his own electoral mandate.
Instead, however, he offered a plan that was clearly both too small and too heavily reliant on tax cuts. Why? Because he wanted the plan to have broad bipartisan support, and believed that it would. Not long ago administration strategists were talking about getting 80 or more votes in the Senate.
Mr. Obama’s postpartisan yearnings may also explain why he didn’t do something crucially important: speak forcefully about how government spending can help support the economy. Instead, he let conservatives define the debate, waiting until late last week before finally saying what needed to be said — that increasing spending is the whole point of the plan.
And Mr. Obama got nothing in return for his bipartisan outreach. Not one Republican voted for the House version of the stimulus plan, which was, by the way, better focused than the original administration proposal.
In the Senate, Republicans inveighed against “pork” — although the wasteful spending they claimed to have identified (much of it was fully justified) was a trivial share of the bill’s total. And they decried the bill’s cost — even as 36 out of 41 Republican senators voted to replace the Obama plan with $3 trillion, that’s right, $3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years.
So Mr. Obama was reduced to bargaining for the votes of those centrists. And the centrists, predictably, extracted a pound of flesh — not, as far as anyone can tell, based on any coherent economic argument, but simply to demonstrate their centrist mojo. They probably would have demanded that $100 billion or so be cut from anything Mr. Obama proposed; by coming in with such a low initial bid, the president guaranteed that the final deal would be much too small.
Krugman amplifies the point that's so frustrating to me: Obama made some really, really bad choices, and the Republicans picked up the ball and ran with it. This isn't just a matter of railing against the Republican Senators - these were serious strategic errors on the part of Obama and his administration, at a time when we can't afford much delay.
And rather than push back hard on the wrong strategy, far too many Democrats seem to think this is a time we should shut up and sit down, lest we hurt the new president's feelings.