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Republicans Test 2010 Message: Cancel the Stimulus

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The day after President Obama signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) took to the airwaves to offer voters a different kind of new deal.

“If the American people will let the Republicans back in charge,” said Gohmert on the Feb. 19 episode of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, “the 60 percent of this bill that won’t be spent until after the next election, we’ll cut it off and let it go to the Americans.”

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Image by: Matt Mahurin

That idea didn’t immediately take. In February, support for the economic stimulus package that passed with no Republican votes in the House and only three (including that of Sen. Arlen Specter, who later switched parties) in the Senate, was above 50 percent. The March 31 special election for New York’s upstate 20th congressional district, an early test of a hard-edged Republican message opposing the stimulus, ended with an upset victory for now-Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.).

But as unemployment numbers rise, and as the Obama administration is forced to admit that its early projections of what the stimulus package would achieve were overly optimistic, Republicans are returning to that February vote and hanging it around the necks of vulnerable Democrats. Increasingly, they are echoing Gohmert’s enthusiastic pledge to scrap whatever stimulus money is left in January 2011.cancel the rest of the stimulus spending.” On Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) took to Twitter to make a similar argument:the Republican National Committee gave its first-ever Grassroots Logic Award to Matthias Shapiro, a Utah IT consultant who directed a viral video that portrayed the spending and job growth promises of the stimulus as stacks of pennies being shoved off of a coffee table.

The return of the stimulus as a political weapon for Republicans as members in both houses of Congress have pre-emptively pushed back against the unpopular idea of a second crack at an economic rescue bill. It also comes as the party and its candidates grow increasingly confident that the stimulus, by failing so far to meet the projections of President Obama and congressional Democrats, is the key to a midterm election argument that the majority party is making matters worse by spending so much money.

“We’re hitting this message every day,” said one House Republican aide, who boiled the party’s mantra down to three words. “Where’s the jobs? Where’s the jobs? Where’s the jobs? [Democrats] can’t answer that.”

There is some variance in the anti-stimulus mantra. Not all Republicans are going as far as Gohmert, Hatch, or Kyl. On a Thursday conference call that was organized to rebut Vice President Joe Biden on his trip to Ohio, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), would only say that Republicans would “certainly revisit” the stimulus, and the money left to be allocated, if they won a majority in the 2010 elections. “Whatever is left in January 2011 ought to get a lot of scrutiny,” Boehner said. “I would suggest to you that a lot of it could be cut, because at the end of the day, most of the stimulus money was about creating more government, not creating more jobs.”

At an event promoting his book “Saving Freedom,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said Republicans would miss an opportunity if they didn’t talk about the stimulus in those terms. “We need to start talking about it,” DeMint said, referring to the money that might be left to be allocated in 2011, “because we need to turn it into tax cuts instead of government spending.”

According to Republican pollster John McLaughlin, Republicans are benefiting from an “evolution” in the way voters view the stimulus, and the way that it has become blurred with banking industry bailouts, foreclosure prevention plans, and other Democratic plans as a wave of spending that has failed to stem rising unemployment. “Initially,” said McLaughlin, “in February, if you asked people if they were against a stimulus program, it was like asking: Are you against stimulating the economy? Since then there’s been more of a consensus that the level of spending is too high.” Voters aren’t grateful for the small tax cut included in the stimulus, said McLaughlin, because “very few people will say they got it, and it’s been overwhelmed by the state taxes they pay, which have been going up.”

Republicans such as DeMint have argued that doubts about the stimulus reflect increasing doubts about the growth of government and increases in spending. Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist who is now a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, said that a much more simple worry was at play. “It’s never been clear that people vote on the deficit,” said Schnur, who worked for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign. “Right now, anti-deficit concerns may be a placeholder for broader concerns about the economy. For the Democrats to take this back and get credit for the stimulus, the economy doesn’t have to be recovered, but voters have to believe it’s recovering. You can be a mile inside of hell as long as you’re heading out.”

Steve Stivers, a Republican who lost a congressional race by a razor-thin margin in Ohio last year in a district carried by Barack Obama, is one of the 2010 candidates betting that voters won’t be taking the Democrats’ side on the stimulus. He launched his bid this month, attacking Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D) for “spending trillions, growing the size of government” and creating a debt that “our children can’t afford.” In an interview with TWI, Stivers declined a chance to say, like Hatch or Kyl, that he would cancel the rest of the stimulus money. “There were good parts and bad parts of the stimulus,” Stivers said. “Some of the spending eased human suffering, and no one wants that, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum. What you need to stay focused on is how to improve the economy in the long term. Government spending is not going to do that unless you want a bigger government sector, and that’s not something that creates wealth for the rest of the economy.” Stivers debated a recent argument made by Christina Romer, the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, that cutting back on spending during a recession led to disaster when it was tried in 1937. “I don’t think too many historians will argue that anything brought us out of the Depression except for World War II.”

Republican pollsters and strategists agreed that opposing the stimulus is a safe bet for Republicans; Schnur suggested that unless some recovery was visible by March 2010, the electorate would decided that the president’s policy had failed and be more receptive to Republican attacks on spending and deficits. Liberal-leaning economists don’t disagree. “Obama hurt himself politically from the outset,” said Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “I don’t think he ever clearly made the case for the stimulus. Also, Democrats have been demagoguing about the deficit for years. It would have been very difficult for them to turn around and explain why they didn’t want small deficits right now. They decided that they couldn’t make the case.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee has confirmed those worries, dogging Democrats in vulnerable seats with attacks on their votes for the stimulus. On Thursday, NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay pointed to a special election in upstate New York — a district being vacated by Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) which, as it happens, borders the district Democrats won on March 31 — as the next test to see how the stimulus will play politically.

“Democrats have painted a large target on NY-23,” Lindsay said. “It’s district they see as competitive. They see it as one they can win. So you’ll probably see a lot of signs there as to whether they want to make stimulus an issue or not.”

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