Did Obama Really Give Away the Store?

Anyone with a grasp of modern domestic political history should have seen last week’s stimulus package impasse in the Senate coming.

It was not at all surprising that Republicans loudly demagogued the package as a massive dose of pork, even as their examples of “pork” accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall bill. Nor was it surprising that the G.O.P.—the same party that added nearly $8 trillion to the national debt between the Reagan-Bush years and George W. Bush’s presidency—suddenly expressed horror at the idea of deficit spending.

And it certainly wasn’t a shock that Republicans, even as Democrats accused them of playing Russian Roulette with the economy, maintained a united Congressional front—one that forced Democrats in the House to rely on a party-line vote to push the package through their chamber and that compelled exasperated Senate Democrats to seek a compromise that could attract just enough Republican votes to kill a G.O.P.-led filibuster in their chamber.

For Democrats, this progression of events was as maddening as it was unavoidable. This kind of unyielding opposition is what the modern Congressional Republican Party, one dominated by conservatives from ultra-red districts where Sarah Palin would easily outpoll Barack Obama, does best. This is not a crowd likely to be swayed by warnings that inaction might cause a wholesale economic catastrophe. Why, that’s just fear-mongering from the liberal media!

Measured against these realities, Democrats ought to be feeling pretty good right now. Last Friday, they reached a deal with three Republicans senators—Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter—that will allow a stimulus package to clear that chamber. It is slightly different from the House version (mainly, to the understandable disappointment of many Democrats, because the Senate compromise eliminates tens of billions of dollars in money for education and aid to cash-strapped states), but the overlap between the two is substantial. A final version should now clear both chambers within a week.

But the mood is anything but joyful on the left, where the prevailing view of the compromise goes something like this: Instead of going to war with Republicans, Mr. Obama foolishly pursued bipartisanship, empowering a handful of self-proclaimed “centrist” Senate Republicans to gut the stimulus plan of its most valuable components, producing a bill that won’t do much to help the economy but that will validate every Republican talking point about how worthless government is.

“My first cut says that the changes to the Senate bill will ensure that we have at least 600,000 fewer Americans employed over the next two years,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on his blog.

There is obvious validity to the left’s complaints about what was left out of the bill, just as the eye-rolling at the fawning media treatment that Senators Collins, Snowe and Specter have received is warranted: Besides being able to brag that they forced concessions and brokered a deal, what exactly was the point—from a policy standpoint—of the cuts that they demanded? The very purpose of a stimulus plan is to pump as much money into the economy as possible.

But the ugly truth in Congressional politics—the truth the Democrats were up against from the minute the stimulus plan was introduced—is that what is right often has to take a back seat to what is possible. The Republicans were always going to oppose the stimulus in lockstep in the House and near-lockstep in the Senate. No amount of bullying from Mr. Obama would have changed this. For Republicans, the stimulus debate—the first major legislative initiative from the president who just clobbered at the polls—was an opportunity to teach him some humility, and to prove their own relevance. They weren’t going to pass that up.

This is precisely what happened to Bill Clinton in his first months as president in 1993, when he proposed an economic stimulus plan of his own. Granted, his proposal was much, much smaller and the times were different, with economists agreeing that a recovery from the early ’90s recession was under way. But the ’93 debate played out almost exactly like this one: Republicans hyped a bunch of outrageous-sounding examples of pork that added up to a small portion of the overall bill and, with 43 Senate votes, held rank through multiple Democratic efforts to break their filibuster.

Eventually, Mr. Clinton gave up and the G.O.P. celebrated an early victory, while Democrats—just like now—lamented the human toll: “While the Champagne corks are popping, millions of Americans will open a can of beans and wonder whether they are going to find a job,” Democratic Senator Robert Byrd gravely declared.

This time, though, the filibuster threat didn’t work as well, and there were just enough Republicans willing to make a deal. Their terms may have been absurd, but that’s the reality of Congressional politics. In the end, Mr. Obama will get about 90 percent of what he originally wanted and will still have several opportunities—in his upcoming budget, in another financial rescue package, and possibly in a follow-up stimulus plan—to go back and get the rest.

It’s hardly perfect. But that’s how it goes.

Did Obama Really Give Away the Store?