The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, January 30, 2009

Hothouse Flowers

”If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” Harry Truman once famously advised about Washington politics. It appears President Obama likes heat and sees it not as a punishment for non-compliance but the perfect climate for growing things.

Obama apparently has cranked up the thermostat in the Oval Office.

“You could grow orchids in there,” moans senior adviser David Axelrod. “He’s from Hawaii. He likes it warm.”

This past week, Obama tried growing orchids of the GOP variety, inviting numerous Republican Congressional leaders to the White House in an attempt to sell them on his economic stimulus package. Alas, his attempts to graft them onto his philosophical blossom died on the vine. While the stimulus legislation easily passed, House Republicans voted unanimously against it.

Many were aghast at the sheer size of the package. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor called it “a spending bill beyond anyone’s imagination.” Yet their objections were more complex than just this.

As David Brooks summed up in today’s New York Times, Democrats merged stimulus measures with their domestic agenda. The result is a “sprawling, undisciplined smorgasbord,” which “by trying to do everything all at once . . . does nothing well.”

Even if Republicans do not hate the bill as much as their rhetoric suggests, there is political calculation at work here. Republicans could not stop the bill in the House nor amend it much there. However, taking a strong stand against it gives their Senate counterparts maximum leverage for compromise when debating the bill in conference.

Philip Klein, writing in the American Spectator, argues it makes no sense for Republicans to do anything other than vote against the Democratic bill. If voters view this stimulus as a failure by 2010, Republican opposition to it now will gain them credibility as champions against wasteful spending and big government intervention. Conversely, if the economy improves, Obama will rake in most of the credit, regardless whether Republicans opposed or supported him.

Orchids are a fit analogy for Republicans at this moment. Often regarded as a fragile flower, orchids are either epiphytes or lithophytes, clinging to larger structures in a non-parasitical relationship, whereby they derive mechanical support but no nutrients.

Republicans, until recent years, controlled both the White House and Congress. Now they must define themselves by their opposition to the Democratic majority. This vote reflects their first determination to dig into the tree of Obama. Yet any real political sustenance for them will come not from this opposition but from ideas they present as alternatives to Democratic rule.

In this sense, their resistance to Obama’s stimulus package is flawed, particularly since they claim to be motivated by budgetary constraints and fighting deficits. Senator John McCain of Arizona has said he cannot support the bill in its current form and hopes to negotiate on some of its massive spending. Obama has already removed a few token examples of the package’s most outrageous outlays and seems expectant and willing to compromise further.

Yet, when offering their own ideas, Republicans generally are lean on suggesting specific spending cuts and heavy on promoting wider and deeper tax cuts.

Appearing on ABC’s This Week last Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky spoke approvingly of tax cuts as the Republican preferred approach. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio echoed that sentiment in a different interview, saying, “Our plans offers fast-action tax relief, not slow moving, wasteful government spending.”

When Republicans finally released their own alternative plan for consideration, it focused exclusively on expanding tax cuts and banning any future tax increases.

It called for reducing the two lowest tax rates from fifteen percent and ten percent to ten percent and five percent respectively. This would include individuals and families making as much as $131,000 per year. Republicans suggested unemployment benefits be tax-free. They want to give small businesses a tax credit up to twenty percent of their incomes. Anyone who could place a five percent down payment on a home would receive a $7,500 tax credit.

Some of these are good ideas and I hope they end up in the final stimulus legislation. However, Republicans seem to miss the point that reduced inlays balloon deficits every bit as fast as increased outlays. In truth, its reliance on tax cuts as an economic panacea without corresponding spending cuts is very much the GOP version of “pork.”

Martin Feldstein, a conservative economist and noted deficit hawk, contends in yesterday’s Washington Post that the majority of government tax cuts end up saved or used to pay down debt, with only fifteen percent of their payout leading to additional spending. Feldstein instead proposes one-time tax credits to households that purchase cars or other major consumer durables.

Republicans can learn a few valuable political lessons from orchids. Despite their delicate nature, highly specialized pollination systems, and often non-fertile surroundings, orchids survive by remaining receptive for very long periods.

Democrats need to deal with their minority status in Congress for at least another two years and with Obama for at least another four years. The current Democratic juggernaut in Washington demands an aggressive opposition to prevent excesses but it must be helpful rather than merely confrontational and principled in its rivalry rather than merely partisan.

The other lesson orchids hold for Republican is that recent botanical research has revealed them a far older species than anyone previously suspected. Orchids first arose during the late Cretaceous Period and co-existed with dinosaurs. This makes them a kind of “living fossil.”

Republicans could suffer a similar fate if they follow the same timidity and uninspired thinking that kept Democrats out of the White House longer than necessary. To wit, they must not rely on Democratic unpopularity to make them seem likeable or Democratic weakness to make them seem strong.

Brad Woodhouse, president of the pro-Democratic group Americans United for Change, recently termed Republican opposition to the stimulus bill “political suicide.” This is clearly hyperbole and perhaps blatantly wrong. However, Democratic ridicule of Republican tax cuts as more of the same failed policies hits closer to home.

There are hundreds of types of orchids in the wild but most species are cultivated. Obama is turning up the thermostat on House and Senate Republicans. While the resulting heat will focus on him, these hothouse flowers must learn to deal with and thrive in rising temperatures.

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