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GOP on Stimulus: First, Do Harm

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Barack Obama never guaranteed he would end partisan rancor in Washington. He said he'd try.

The assumption was that Republicans might want to work with Democrats to reach shared goals. Passing a stimulus plan to stop the economic freefall would seem an easy place to start.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Although Republicans surely understand the urgency of slapping paddles on the economy's stopped heart, they would like to go out for a smoke first and score some partisan points. Thus, Senate Republicans spent last weekend poisoning the public's feelings toward the stimulus package and offering the same economic snake oil that drove the economy into the gutter.

Yeah, what we need is another tax break for American companies that take their business overseas. So insisted Sen. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, on NBC's "Meet the Press."

On the same program, Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada noted that Japan passed six stimulus bills, "none of which brought their economy out of the severe recession that it was in." The real flaw in Japan's approach was canceling out the stimulus by raising taxes at the same time. The current stimulus plan cuts taxes.

Unhappy that states might get a big chunk of stimulus money, Ensign wags his finger at their "bloated" spending. He seems to forget that unlike Washington, states have to balance their budgets. And so when there's a shortfall, they can't issue Treasury bills and print the money to repay them. They have to fire police and-or raise taxes, which is de-stimulating.

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Arizona Sen. John McCain called the legislation "generational theft." He went on, "I know America needs a stimulus, we need tax cuts, we need to spend money on infrastructure and other programs that will put people to work." Actually, the bill does all three. Exactly how are you going to spend money and cut taxes without at least temporarily increasing deficits?

This weak grasp of economic realities was seen in candidate McCain's apparent choice of John Thain as his would-be treasury secretary. Thain is the Wall Street titan who oversaw the wild risk-taking that took down Merrill Lynch -- and walked away from the wreckage with a $40 million bonus.

Arizona's Sen. Jon Kyl accuses Obama of using "dangerous words" to describe the situation. Obama's warning of a "catastrophe" if the stimulus doesn't happen is fear mongering.

Unsettling language for sure, and rhetoric that stokes the fires of public anxiety. Alas, Obama has to use scary words to counter GOP efforts to sabotage the stimulus plan.

The new party line is that George W. Bush had led the Republicans astray. It's his fault and not that of the party leaders who held both houses of Congress for six of Bush's eight years. Now Democrats are trying to do what Bush did -- embark on binge spending.

Let us respectfully point to the obvious: Times have changed. Republicans unleashed half-trillion-dollar deficits when the economy was still OK. Now it's awful, and stimulus spending must be done to save our economic hide.

Eventually paying back the trillions in stimuli and bailouts will be brutal work, but the expensive first-aid can't be skipped. You have to get the patient out of intensive care before you can put him into rehab.

So the game plan, it seems, is to savage the stimulus proposal and let Democrats pass it with little Republican support. The stimulus will go into effect, and Republicans won't have to take responsibility for what could have happened if it didn't.

Must Democrats fix this mess alone? One only hopes that more than a handful of Republicans will decide to be helpful -- if only for the good of the country.

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