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Lou Cannon: GOP Raises Valid Concerns but Disappoints in States

Lack of Republican strategy is likely to pay off the most for California Democrats

Declining political parties traditionally reverse their fortunes by choosing charismatic presidential candidates who espouse policies of change. Notable presidential examples include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. All of these winning candidates took political advantage of economic downturns and all except Obama opposed unpopular incumbents.

Lou Cannon
Lou Cannon

In Obama’s case George W. Bush might as well have been on the ballot, for Democrats often sounded as if they were running against him instead of Sen. John McCain. Republicans in 2008 lost their second consecutive congressional election and a ton of state legislative seats in addition to the presidency. They haven’t since regained the trust of the American people. Communicating effectively and spending freely to overcome the Great Recession, Obama has changed the political landscape more in his first months in office than any president since Reagan, perhaps more than any president since FDR’s celebrated “Hundred Days” in 1933. Obama’s approval ratings, as measured by Gallup, are holding steady at 60 percent while approval ratings of Congress hover in the mid-30s. Republicans are divided and confused. As conservative analyst Craig Shirley puts it, “The current GOP is similar to a fungus in that while both are alive, it’s just hard to prove it.”

It may not be quite that bad. For a party that has just had the stuffing kicked out of it, congressional Republicans have displayed a surprising unity and occasional sense in poking holes in the $787 billion stimulus bill that is the centerpiece of Obama’s recovery plan. It’s true, as Democrats point out, that congressional Republicans advocate a fiscal probity they failed to demonstrate when in power. Nonetheless, as columnist David Broder observed in The Washington Post, the mountain of debt that will pile up at the end of the Democratic rainbow is “the most serious threat to America’s economic future.”

Many independents and Democrats find this scary, as they should. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that voters, even while giving Obama high marks, favor less spending to keep the deficit under control. The deficit hawks have been heartened by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which exposed many fiscal fantasies of the Bush administration and is now even more skeptical about the happy-days-are-here-again budgeting of the Obama team. The CBO has estimated the Obama administration’s spending plans will add $9.3 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, a third more than White House projections. Fiscally responsible Democrats such as Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, used the CBO numbers as a rationale for dropping Obama’s costly “cap and trade” plan to curb carbon emissions — an energy tax by any other name — from congressional budget resolutions. Obama’s vaunted health care overhaul may also be in trouble on fiscal grounds.

Although Obama’s ambitious agenda and rosy budget estimates have provided Republicans with valid talking points, the GOP has floundered in its attempt to develop opposition to the administration stimulus plan in the states. A handful of Republican governors, including putative presidential aspirants Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Sarah Palin of Alaska and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, threatened to decline federal stimulus funds on grounds ranging from the unconvincing to the perverse. In the former category is Jindal’s argument that the stimulus will have “dire consequences” for the states. That hasn’t been true in Louisiana, which is still benefiting from a $51 billion stimulus — ironically, a Bush stimulus — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In February, Louisiana had a jobless rate of 5.7 percent, well below the national average of 8.1 percent, and construction was booming.

Dissident Republican governors led by Rick Perry of Texas have been especially short-sighted in opposing extension of unemployment insurance benefits to part-time workers, as the federal stimulus act requires. The governors contend this provision could force state governments to increase taxes when federal funds run out. It’s a weak argument, since states could forestall this with sunset laws that end added benefits when the current recession is over — or when they are no longer federally subsidized. But Republican Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Bob Riley of Alabama, along with Jindal, Palin, Perry and Sanford, are still making noises about rejecting this portion of the stimulus, although they have agreed (with the exception of Sanford) to accept most of the federal funds.

It’s not surprising that many Republican state legislators have split with their resistant governors on this issue. Tim Storey, political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislators, observes that it isn’t realistic for states, which are required to balance their budgets, to turn down federal funds while they are cutting basic programs to make ends meet. It’s also politically foolish, since Republicans are unlikely to return to power on the backs of the unemployed. Extension of unemployment benefits has been a government strategy in every major recession since the 1930s, no matter which party occupies the White House. Why single out a program that goes to people with little or no money, increases consumer spending and helps keep families in their homes and off the welfare rolls? It is reminiscent of GOP resistance to Social Security during the Great Depression. One of the resisters was the otherwise progressive Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon, who became the Republican presidential nominee in 1936 and lost to FDR in a landslide. Not all Republicans followed the lead of Landon, who later changed his mind about Social Security, and not every conservative GOP governor is marching in lockstep now with the Perrys and the Palins. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a rising GOP star, has criticized some aspects of the Obama spending plan but accepted the stimulus money on grounds that Minnesota wasn’t getting its “fair share” of federal funds.

The Republican governor on the liberal end of his party’s political spectrum hasn’t fared any better than the conservatives. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who can’t run for president because he was born in Austria, is eager for the stimulus funds and anything else he can get from the federal government. But to narrow California’s horrendous budget deficit, Schwarzenegger also needs to win passage of a half-dozen ballot measures in a May 19 special election. The title of these measures are masterpieces of Orwellian language: Proposition 1C, to borrow from future lottery proceeds to reduce the deficit, is called “The Lottery Modernization Act,” while Proposition 1D, to take $1.4 billion from children’s services for this same purpose, is called “Protect Children’s Services Funding.” Business groups are waging an uphill campaign to pass these measures, fearing that California may go broke without them, but polls show five of the six propositions trailing. Republican conservatives meanwhile, to use a Reagan phrase, are devouring their young. Their distaste for Schwarzenegger is understandable, but not so their tactic of trying to defeat the GOP legislators who voted for his budget in the next round of Republican primaries. The winners of such internecine political warfare will inevitably be the Democrats. The losers will be the people of California, which after Schwarzenegger’s departure from the scene in 2010 will be well on its way to becoming a one-party state.

— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.

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