A Surprising Vote

Wednesday’s House vote on the stimulus plan was a bit of a shocker. This report explains:

The 244-188 vote was not what Mr. Obama had hoped for. A week of presidential wooing — including a visit to the Capitol, a return visit to the White House by moderate House Republicans and a bipartisan cocktail party Wednesday night — did not yield a single Republican vote. The president also lost 11 Democrats.

It is a measure of how atrocious the bill was — even on its own terms as a Keynesian “boost” for the economy — that it, in essence, freed Republicans to stand on principle and stand united — both rarities for the Republicans of late. Had the bill contained fewer liberal interest group giveaways or had the President actually incorporated some of the Republicans’ ideas (rather than merely humoring them), the result may have been different. Yes, the bill will move on but this is hardly the sort of start the administration hoped for. The rather remarkable rebuff leads to a few conclusions.

First, President Obama has spent much of his politically career voting Left and talking moderately. That doesn’t necessarily win over adherents when it comes to actual legislation. Congressmen and Senators really do care what is in the bills they are voting for. So if the President expects that his personal popularity and a welcomed degree of civility alone are going to win over Republicans he is mistaken. (It isn’t even enough to keep all the Democrats in line at the moment when his presidential authority and popularity are at the highest they will ever be.)

Second, Republicans are betting that by articulating an alternative approach to governance rather than merely mimicking the Democrats they can stage a political comeback. For now they have a clear message: a spending bonanza is bad for the country and won’t help with the recovery. Much will depend on how the economy actually fares and whether Republicans continue to offer not just forceful opposition, but credible alternatives (e.g. a package of tax cuts and scaled back spending in the case of the stimulus). Nevertheless, it is the first sign of decent political judgment and coherence that Congressional have demonstrated in some time. (For Republican Whip Eric Cantor, it is a feather in his cap to keep the entire caucus in line.)

Third, this raises real questions about what the Obama team has in mind. Are they simply going to defer to the most extreme and least disciplined elements in the Democratic party, and attempt to govern on a series of party-line votes? That doesn’t sound like the transformational sort of presidency to which Obama aspired. Or, will this serve as a wake up call, a reminder that bipartisanship requires not merely a shift in tone but a willingness to move politically for the sake of gaining a broader consensus?

It remains to be seen what the Senate does with the bill. This is, of course, not the end but the beginning of the political maneuvering. And if this is any indication we are in for a very wild ride. But clearly, the President is learning that charm alone only works on his own party.