Arlen Specter was one of just three Senate Republicans to buck his party and vote in favor of President Obama’s stimulus package. After he announced his decision, he says, a fellow GOP senator approached him in private to offer congratulations.
When asked, however, that unknown senator declined to join Specter because he was too afraid of drawing a primary challenge. He was glad somebody was doing the right thing, but he wouldn’t risk it himself.
As Specter put it, “there are a lot of people in the Republican caucus who are glad to see this action taken without their fingerprints, without their participation. … I think a good part of the caucus agrees with the person I quoted.”
In the House, of course, not a single Republican voted in favor of the stimulus bill, a fact the GOP celebrated as a great victory. As Republican Party chairman Michael Steele later told the House GOP, “The goose egg that you laid on the president’s desk was just beautiful.”
Given such remarks, it’s pretty clear that Republicans in Congress decided to approach the stimulus measure not on its merits but as a matter of party discipline; they voted not as individuals with minds of their own, but in lockstep, as a party following a herd instinct. Before the vote, the small number of GOP members who had expressed support for the stimulus or were waffling were pressured not to betray their fellow party members, and the pressure worked.
In parliamentary systems such as Great Britain, of course, such party-line votes are common, but until the early ’90s, they were relatively rare in Congress. That changed when Newt Gingrich became House minority whip and began to use party-line votes as a way to define the GOP brand to the American public.
In 1993, for instance, President Clinton proposed a major tax increase to help bring down soaring deficits and restore fiscal confidence on Wall Street. The proposal passed, but without a single Republican vote in the House. After that vote, Gingrich made a prediction about its economic impact:
“We’ll be in a recession by next year, and I think [Clinton’s] tax increase will increase the deficit by putting Americans out of work.”
In economic terms, Gingrich could not have been more mistaken. The deficit did not increase; it fell annually from $300 billion in 1993, reaching surplus in 1999. The average unemployment rate —- 6.9 percent in 1993 —- also declined in every subsequent year of Clinton’s presidency.
However, if Gingrich’s stand was bad economics, it proved to be good politics. The party unity they displayed helped define the Republicans as tax-cutters and the Democrats as tax-hikers in the public eye, contributing significantly to the surprise Republican takeover of the House in 1994. That’s the model House Republicans are trying to emulate.
However, there’s another example that may prove more telling. In late 1995, Gingrich again used party discipline to block passage of a federal budget and forcing a shutdown of the government. The American people were not amused, and this time they sided not with the Republicans but with Clinton. Gingrich was forced to publicly back down, a humiliation he never overcame.
At a time of perceived crisis, in other words, public tolerance for partisan games proved pretty low. And the standoff of 14 years ago doesn’t compare in severity to the economic emergency confronting us today.
In poll after poll, roughly 60 percent of Americans say they approve of how Obama is handling the economy. More tellingly, in a CNN poll 60 percent of Americans say they approve of how congressional Democrats are handling it, while 55 percent disapprove of Republican congressional leadership. A new AP poll puts it even more starkly — 68 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, 49 percent approve of how congressional Democrats are approaching it. Only 33 percent approve of the Republican approach, with 59 percent disapproving.
In times of stress, people naturally seek comfort in unity. The Republicans, hurting politically, turned to each other for that comfort. But the American people, also under stress, also sought unity and instead saw the GOP act in boldly partisan fashion. They clearly don’t approve.