Stop the Presses: Republican Lawmakers Oppose Democratic President

boehnerobs Stop the Presses: Republican Lawmakers Oppose Democratic PresidentWith apologies to all of the important and influential news outlets that are playing it up, there is absolutely nothing newsworthy about John Boehner’s apparent declaration of war on Barack Obama’s $825 billion economic stimulus package.

You didn’t actually think the top Republican in the U.S. House was going to support the new Democratic president’s first major legislative initiative, did you? This is what opposition leaders in Congress do. When Ronald Reagan took office, Tip O’Neill fought his tax cuts. When Bill Clinton was elected, Bob Dole, then the Senate G.O.P. leader, declared himself the "chaperone" of the new president’s honeymoon.

Now it’s Mr. Boehner’s turn. Mr. Obama is calling for $550 billion in new spending and $275 billion in tax relief. Mr. Boehner’s response is as formulaic as his posture: not enough tax cuts and too much spending! He’s even equipped himself with the obligatory Outrageous Examples of (supposedly) wasteful spending.

"$200 million to fix up the National Mall, $21 million for sod, over $200 million for contraceptives – how is any of this going to fix an ailing economy?" Mr. Boehner said over the weekend. This what Republican opposition leaders do – even if their party just spent the last eight years pushing the national debt to nearly $10 trillion.

The usual pledges of bipartisanship aside, there was never any chance that Mr. Boehner was going to be anything but critical of Mr. Obama’s stimulus plan. Any other posture would invite a mutiny from within the House G.O.P. ranks. (It’s a little different in the more measured and talk-radio-resistant world of the Senate, where G.O.P. leader Mitch McConnell has indicated some willingness to entertain some version of the Obama plan.)

This lack of suspense extends to Mr. Boehner’s House colleagues. Since they largely hail from G.O.P.-dominated districts, there’s little to be gained for most Republicans in supporting Mr. Obama, just as there’s no incentive for most Democrats to stand up to a popular president from their own party. In terms of the stimulus package, this means that, despite the high-volume debate about to unfold in Congress, the final vote should mainly be along party lines.

The representatives, in other words, will vote their own political interests.

History backs this up. Consider the last two newly elected presidents who came to power during economic turmoil and who quickly proposed sweeping economic programs. Both presidents, Ronald Reagan in 1981 and Bill Clinton in 1993, ultimately got their way, although with drastically different political repercussions (Reagan emerged from his budget victory triumphant, while Mr. Clinton was almost apologetic.)

Start with Reagan’s 1981 budget, which passed the House on a 253-176 vote. It was regarded as a stunning feat, given that Democrats owned a 244-191 majority in the chamber. Sixty-five Democrats ended up crossing over to support the Reagan budget, with no Republican defections the other way.

This is regarded as perhaps the most vivid display of a presidential mandate at work in the modern era. There’s something to this claim. As the vote neared and O’Neill frantically tried to keep his caucus united, Reagan, elected in a 44-state landslide and only a few weeks removed from an assassination attempt that only bolstered his popularity, appealed to the public in a national television address. O’Neill didn’t stand a chance.

"They say they’re voting for it because they’re afraid," was how Connecticut Representative Toby Moffett explained the defections.

But look closer. Forty-four of those 65 Democrats were conservatives, generally from the South, who today would simply be Republicans (just as the liberal Yankee Republicans of that era are now Democrats). Today’s clear and sharp ideological divide between the parties was still taking shape. By current standards, Reagan’s popularity was only good enough for about 20 true crossover votes, if that. Otherwise, everyone stuck to the script.

Now consider 1993. As in ’80, the flagging economy had been the chief issue in the 1992 campaign, with Bill Clinton promising to focus on it "like a laser beam." But Mr. Clinton didn’t enjoy a Reagan mandate. He stumbled badly in his early months as president, and as his economic plan – which included a tax hike for upper-income Americans and not the middle-class cut he had promised during the campaign – came up for a final vote, his popularity was below 50 percent.

Because of his poor standing, Mr. Clinton and his budget were vulnerable to the opposition party’s attacks in a way that Reagan’s never was. Public opinion moved squarely against the plan, derided by the G.O.P. as "the biggest tax increase in American history." Just as they’d been afraid to buck Reagan in ’81, Democrats now feared standing with their own president.

Nonetheless, most members of Congress stuck to the script. Every Republican in both houses voted against the budget, while 38 Democrats in the House – again many moderate-to-conservative Southerners – and six from the Senate joined them. It was just enough for Mr. Clinton to prevail, to the (initial) irritation of most voters.

The takeaway lesson seems to be this: a popular first-year president can attract a handful of opposition party votes for his signature initiative, while an unpopular one stands to suffer a handful of defections from his own party. That’s about all that’s up for grabs in Congress.

Mr. Obama currently enjoys an approval rating of 69 percent and is reaching out to House Republicans, hoping to make deep inroads on the stimulus vote. No doubt, his program will end up passing – Democrats have the numbers and will be unified. But it will be a shock if more than a scattering of Republicans don’t follow their leader, Mr. Boehner, and use the vote to cater to their base. 

Nothing to see here.