Shrum’s advice for Republicans is half right.
It’s true, for example, that the tactics that worked for the GOP in 1993 won’t work in 2009. Back then, Republicans faced a new but already scandal-battered president who had recklessly outraced his weak, 43-percent mandate.
In 1993, the new president’s signature initiative—health care—was complex and widely disliked; he offered an abrupt and convulsive lurch to address a problem that called instead for incremental and consultative solutions.
Finally, in 1993 the Republican Party could see a governing majority within reach. Ross Perot’s voters leaned Republican, and many Democratic congressional seats looked (and were) vulnerable.
None of these conditions applies today. Barack Obama has a real mandate and enjoys real popularity. He skillfully avoids Bill Clinton’s divisive and self-destructive missteps. What’s more, the crisis to which Obama is responding is inescapably urgent. And of course, today’s Republican Party is a weaker and more beleaguered reduction of its 1993 self. Unless it chooses its fights very carefully, the GOP will be rolled right over.
Now, here is where Shrum is wrong.
Republicans can plainly see that in the name of “fiscal stimulus” Barack Obama is planning to do a lot of things that will in no way help alleviate the downturn.
Some of these plans may have some merit on their own, and where they do, Republicans can do themselves and the country a favor by seeing if it’s possible to work cooperatively. With action on health likely inevitable, it’s better that Republicans participate in the work to ensure a result that’s market-sensitive. Action on climate change and the environment is essential, so Republicans should promote nuclear power, the cheapest alternative to dirty coal, and should resist further subsidies to costly fantasies like wind and solar.
But Republicans also should never forget that Obama is a Chicago pol. His plans will be larded with special favors and ripe for abuse. We already know where the worst will be. Chicago style, Obama will cram them into the one department to which he has named a Republican as cabinet secretary (the better to share the blame). Look for the Department of Transportation to be chock full of bridges to nowhere, roads to everywhere and hands out all around.
In a similar vein, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the government’s $700-billion bailout engine, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, dispensing billions in tax dollars on nobody knows what. Likewise, impending cap-and-trade plans to create carbon dioxide pollution permits will create billions in new money—which is essentially what emissions permits are—and distribute them to favored industries.
So clearly, there will be a role in Obama’s Washington for an opposition party that protects taxpayers and exposes corruption.
Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The duty of an opposition is to oppose.” That aptly describes politics in a parliamentary system. It is not true in a congressional system, where the opposition can wield influence upon legislation and must therefore make strategic decisions about when to cooperate and when to fight.
Republicans should make those decisions cannily and unemotionally. Obama seems cleverly determined to adopt a less polarizing style than his two immediate predecessors, and Republicans would do well to avoid being maneuvered into the role of mindless oppositionists.
At the same time, Obama’s views and instincts seem further left of center than Bill Clinton’s, especially on economic matters. If so, conflict will be unavoidable. Who else will speak for enterprise, markets, and freedom if Republicans do not?
We still don’t know whether Barack Obama sincerely shares Shrum’s nostalgia for the unionized, regulated economy fastened upon the United States by the New Deal. My guess is no. But if I am wrong, then Republicans will have no choice but to resist. Sometimes you have to risk being rolled over rather than play dead.