Last week, the beleaguered Republicans in Congress finally moved on from attempting to inflict collateral damage on President Obama by ritually scourging “Reid and Pelosi.” They explicitly blamed the president for his willingness to sign a holdover appropriations bill supposedly replete with “earmarks”—a word which has now become the equivalent of a budgetary profanity. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell was too earmarked up himself to lead the charge, although he did organize behind the lines to temporarily deny the Democrats the needed sixty votes to move ahead in the Senate.

The claimed goal here was to pressure the President to threaten a veto—over earmarks that constitute about 1% of the 410 billion dollar measure—a political tactic to expose him as a hypocrite for failing to do so since he was critical of earmarks during the campaign. His criticism, however, is more muted than John McCain’s; the latter often left the impression that his entire answer to the economic crisis was eliminating earmarks like the now iconic “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Obama, of course, declined to rise to the Republican bait. For one thing, as administration officials rightly noted, the bill is last year’s business, a holdover from the final dreary and deadlocked denouement of the Bush administration. This explanation is more than a Pilate-like washing of hands. A veto would gum up the legislative gears, requiring a time consuming new effort to deal with old issues and stirring resentments that could cost the President vital support for his budget. This was never in the cards, but was the ultimate Republican aim—to slow or derail the Obama economic program.

In the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, who other than the angry, self-righteous John McCain would pause or detour to do mortal combat with earmarks? Yet most of the press echoed the Republican line, even the New York Times, which reported the probably week-long delay in passing the bill as a Democratic “failure” and then offered up a name brand Op-Ed column that uncritically reprinted McCain’s manic twitterings.

The story line is probably just too easy, the punch lines too irresistible. During the stimulus debate, we had a run of stories across the media about Obama’s stumbles and set-backs—just before the largest single expenditure bill in American history passed in record time and the President’s approval rating reached all time highs. But it’s even easier to go down the high-minded road here, because the examples McCain cites are the very caricature of a hapless, spendthrift Congress.

Never mind that many of the most glaring items could in fact help the economy. New York’s wine industry will benefit from research in grape genetics. “Quick, peel me a grape,” McCain twittered, ignoring the potential boost for production and jobs. The same goes for the “earmark” for blueberry farming in Georgia, catfish research in Alabama, and the “promotion of astronomy” in Hawaii. The luddite McCain noted that “nothing says jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy.” Well, yes it does—if they’re hired to build the equipment or staff the facilities. The most egregious McCain reach for the cheap and the demagogic was his cute denunciation of a million dollar appropriation for “Mormon critic control in Utah,” which he ridiculed as possibly “a game played by the brits.” (In twitter-land, presumably there are no capital letters.) Clearly, McCain hasn’t even glanced at the issue. It has nothing to do with the British, or with “Mormon crickets” who adjure alcohol and coffee; it’s about pests who endanger crops, livelihoods, and yes, guess again, agriculture that contributes to economic growth.

My plight is not that all earmarks are right, but that they’re like all forms of government spending. They have to be evaluated on the merits, not libeled by labeling. And in an era when more and more power has been seized by the Executive branch, why should we assume that bureaucrats, the usual Republican targets, are uniformly wiser about how to allocate federal dollars than elected members of Congress. There is no underlying philosophy of government here other than opportunistic posturing. Obviously earmarks should be transparent; obviously they can be wasteful and the process can be deformed; but earmarks can also be justified and even essential.

The Iraq Study Group, which led to a fundamental reexamination of conduct of the war, was created with an earmark offered by one Congressman, a Republican, who had had enough of Donald Rumsfeld’s stubborn insistence that failure was really success. Newt Gingrich’s earmark for additional cargo planes in the early 1990s, spending not requested by the Pentagon, provided needed capacity to resupply our forces in Afghanistan.

An equally persuasive case can be made for some of the biggest domestic earmarks like rail transportation projects in New York and Arizona—which total 600 million dollars in the appropriations measure being carpet-bombed by McCain. The new Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, has been called out for earmarks in the bill that she inserted as a member of Congress. What are they for? Police equipment in some of the hardest pressed neighborhoods of Southern California. What’s wrong with that?

The unexamined earmark is not worth denouncing or discarding. The fault here is not all McCain’s or the Republicans’; Evan Bayh, the perennially cliché-hobbled Democratic Senator from Indiana joined in last week. He insisted that “spending should be held in check before taxes are raised, even on the wealthy”—a sentiment which surely pleased the Wall Street Journal where he was writing. But he conveniently overlooked the reality that all the earmarks in the bill could be eliminated and total spending would barely change.

John McCain campaigned on his enmity toward earmarks. He lost because the country faced far bigger issues. It still does. The present and passing debate—over a contested appropriations bill that will soon reach the President’s desk—is merely another way station in the Republicans’ wandering search for an idea beyond reflexive opposition—for a coherent alternative to the Obama economic policy. It won’t come from House Minority Leader John Boehner’s latest folly, a proposed federal spending freeze which would drive the economy into an accelerating downturn. And it won’t come from the gathering Conservative argument that the trick here will be to restore the confidence of the Masters of the Market who, with the connivance of the regulators who didn’t, got us into this mess in the first place. This focus on “confidence” was the heart of Herbert Hoover’s failed response to the Depression. So absent any coherent rationale for policy, expect the Republicans to just keep on keeping on. They will relentlessly rationalize a do-nothing, try-everything approach even if it means they have to go along with party-suspect John McCain and for the moment block the earmarks they themselves sponsored.