The Magazine

The Republicans' Best Weapon

It's Obama himself.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By FRED BARNES
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In 1994, congressional Republicans carried laminated copies of their Contract With America (tax cuts, term limits, etc.) in their pockets. They may now want to laminate President Obama's inaugural address and carry it around.

This is not as silly as it sounds. Republican leaders believe the speech pleased them more than it did House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Obama's "new era of responsibility" echoed the "Personal Responsibility Act," the third of the ten planks in the Contract With America. Obama also said that it's not the size of government which matters but whether it works. Newt Gingrich coined that thought years ago. Obama lauded "risk-takers." Democrats want to tax them to death.

For the foreseeable future, attacking Obama will be counterproductive for Republicans. He's both enormously popular and the bearer of moral authority as the first African-American president. So the idea is for Republicans to make Obama an ally by using his words, from the inaugural address and speeches and interviews, against Democrats and their initiatives in Congress.

Obama is for bipartisanship. Pelosi, Reid, and their cohort are heavyhanded partisans with no interest in accommodating Republicans. Obama favors transparency. They don't. Obama says he wants "to spend wisely" and promises that "programs will end" if they don't work. That's hardly the philosophy of congressional Democrats.

Obama's words may be bromides or boilerplate that bear little relationship to his true sentiments or real plans. But so what? Republicans in the House and Senate are a badly outnumbered minority. They have few political weapons at their disposal. Citing Obama's words makes political sense. It's at least worth a try. Republicans have nothing to lose.

It might even get Republicans some attention. For the mainstream media, Obama is the only story in Washington. Most reporters are indifferent to the excesses of one-party, Democratic rule on Capitol Hill. But the argument that Democrats are out of sync with Obama, if repeated often enough, might get some traction.

Republicans are already using it against the $850 billion economic stimulus package drafted by congressional Democrats and tentatively accepted at the White House as Obama's program. Republicans complained they'd been shut out. Indeed they had been, their input ignored. Obama listened to Republican leaders at a bipartisan meeting at the White House last week and scheduled a session this week with House Republican whip Eric Cantor.

Republicans exploited two other weapons at their disposal. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell got a copy of the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the Democratic bill. It wasn't a formal CBO report, wasn't set for public release, and never appeared on the office's website. But McConnell leaked it to the Associated Press, whose story appeared a few hours before Obama was inaugurated. The AP story began, "It will take years before an infrastructure spending program proposed by President-elect Obama will boost the economy, according to congressional economists."

The $274 billion for infrastructure had been billed as the job-creating, economy-stimulating part of the bill. But only 7 percent of the money would be spent in 2009 and less than $4 billion in highway construction funds would hit the economy before September 2010.

Democrats were sufficiently embarrassed to start tinkering with the bill and move more spending into 2009. And Peter Orszag, the new White House budget director, noted that 75 percent of the $850 billion will now be spent this year. But most of that money--$166 billion to bail out state governments, for instance--won't produce jobs or goose the economy.

The other weapon that aided Republicans was the conservative intellectual community, particularly economists. Amity Shlaes's book on the failure of the New Deal to revive the economy, The Forgotten Man, was widely read by Republicans in Washington. So were her compelling articles on that subject in mainstream newspapers.

Free market economists (some of them surprisingly engaging writers) raised doubts about the Democratic stimulus scheme. Greg Mankiw of Harvard tore apart Joe Biden's claim that "every economist, as I've said, from conservative to liberal, acknowledges that direct government spending on a direct program now is the best way to infuse economic growth and create jobs." Mankiw ticked off a list of well-known economists who don't believe that, including Gary Becker, Robert Barro, Robert Lucas, Eugene Fama, and Mankiw himself. "I am sure there are many others as well," he wrote. True. There's Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute, for one.

Republicans might well have invoked Obama when Democrats pulled off an egregious act of partisanship on the State Children's Health Insurance Program, aka S-chip. Last year, Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise on S-chip, and it cleared the finance committee, 17-4. President Bush ultimately vetoed the bill.

Without consulting Republicans, Democrats drafted a new bill several weeks ago, stripping out the relatively minor items that had made S-chip acceptable to Republicans. These included a waiting period for children of immigrants and a measure to limit the number of children lured off private insurance. S-chip not only got more expensive, but children from families in New York and New Jersey earning more than 300 percent of the poverty line ($66,150 for a family of four) would now be eligible.

Expanding S-chip is one of Obama's top priorities. If he's unhappy with the way the new bill was put together, he hasn't said so. That may be because Republicans haven't yelled loudly enough to make it an issue. They should. Democrats may regard bipartisanship as unnecessary. But the public loves it.

The point isn't that S-chip could be stopped. That's not likely. And a laminated copy of Obama's inaugural would be too unwieldy to carry around. No, the point is that Republicans in Congress aren't helpless or powerless. They can make the best of a bad situation. And who knows? The situation might get better.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.