The Finest Hour of the Republic(ans)

When I was a kid, the teacher spared us from having to read the entire volume of Profiles in Courage by the late President John F. Kennedy.  All we had to cover was the chapter about Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, who refused to vote for conviction at the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial.  This was presumably a great exercise of conscience against powerful pressure and the threat of isolation.

Following that logic, only a lonely individual vote represents political courage.  Baloney!  We have just witnessed one of the greatest acts of principle in American governmental history, and it was accomplished by 177 members of Congress from the Republican Party.  Yes, every single Republican without exception — plus eleven hardy Democrats — voted against the President’s bloated monstrosity of a “stimulus” bill.  This was extraordinarily difficult to accomplish for a number of reasons.

First, there is tremendous momentum working on behalf of the Democrat Party in general and President Obama in particular.  They have won the presidency, increased their domination in both Houses of Congress, and now control most of the governorships in the country as well.  Somehow the corruption exposed among Democrats such as William Jefferson, Charles Rangel, and Rod Blagojevich does not hurt the party.  By contrast, the Republican malfeasance of Abramoff, Ney and Foley hurt badly.  The Obama image of youth and fresh thinking set against McCain running as the oldest candidate ever feeds the perception that the Democrats are the future.

In this type of environment, with a congenial new President enjoying immense popularity, it is virtually impossible to resist the tug to join his initial effort.  In fact, if Obama had begun with something more modest in scope, almost anything, the Republicans in the House would almost certainly have had to go along, like it or not.  Doing this insane 900 billion dollar power grab exposed Obama to the risk of Republicans pushing back, and for once he paid the price.

Obama desperately wanted Republican participation, both to buttress the perception that he is a uniter and to give his party some insurance against failure.  By forcing the Democrats to take sole ownership of the bill, the Republicans have become the champion of ordinary people.  Most Americans are horrified at the idea of throwing 900 billion dollars — more than double the 400 that was the worst previous annual deficit — of their money into vague programs.

The truth is this was hard for the Republicans to do because of their own beliefs.  As a general rule, they believe in the ability of free markets to correct themselves.  This means that before very long the economy will straighten out… even if nothing at all is done.  Thus, if Obama’s bill does not end up ruining the recovery, and the expected natural repair kicks in, it is almost inevitable that Obama will be given credit for solving the problem.  If that were to happen, Republican chances at the ballot box will be set back for decades.

Still, they did the right thing despite the fear that the wrong thing might end up looking like the right thing, making them look like the only backward troublemakers who missed the boat at a moment of national crisis.

It is much to be hoped that the Republicans in the Senate will display similar fortitude.  That seems unlikely, given the number of senators who think the way to show sophistication and flexibility is to sell out.  A sellout of this sort here will hurt the American People and seriously damage their own party.

As for individual conservatives with valid policy approaches, now would be an ideal time to publish.  The only hope for real change lies in the innovation of solid, honest thinkers.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the brain trust of the right was very productive, arming sympathetic politicians with real proposals.  The public respects a party or an ideology that seems to be energetic, creative and passionate.  Playing defense to stop Democrat excess is important — and this week it was heroic — but the winner in the long run is the team with the best ideas.