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What's The Gop's Optimal Stimulus Strategy?

Jon Chait and I were debating this at our editorial meeting this morning. Jon says the GOP's dream is to derail the stimulus plan, which would devastate the economy and destroy Obama's presidency. I say that'd be pretty self-defeating. Everyone knows Obama inherited an economic mess, and that Obama and the Democrats badly want to pass a stimulus. If the stimulus dies, the GOP will almost certainly get blamed. (I don't think the PR battle on that would be a close call, but even if it were, you'd have to think the White House has the advantage thanks to its institutional megaphone.) I know historical analogies are fraught, and 75 years ago is a long time, but Republicans were so discredited in the early 30s that FDR's failure to end the depression by 1936 didn't seem to hurt his re-election chances. I suspect we'd see something similar in 2012. If the economy continued to spiral downward, as it almost certainly would absent a stimulus, the only thing the GOP would accomplish by derailing it is to further discredit itself.

My guess is that the GOP's best strategy is to oppose the stimulus as close to unanimously as possible, but then have it pass anyway. (I think Ramesh Ponnuru suggested this in a video debate we had yesterday, which should be up soon.) Even with the stimulus, we're still likely to be in for a tough couple years. Which means that, in 2010, the GOP would be able to claim that Obama spent all this money with little to show for it, and that their objections have been born out. It will obviously be a preposterous claim--an economy barely limping along after nearly a trillion dollars of stimulus would have been in terrible shape with a smaller stimulus, or no stimulus at all--but the thing about politics is that you never get to see the counterfactual. I suspect the GOP would make some headway with this argument.

On the other hand, I wouldn't sweat it too much if I were the White House. There are a certain number of Republicans in swing districts whose constituents, with only a little prodding, will understand that the GOP's preference was to do almost nothing at a time when people wanted quick, decisive action. I'm just saying my scenario probably gets the GOP more politically than the alternatives. (Derailing it is bad for the reasons I mentioned. And collaborating with Obama wouldn't really cut them in for much credit, but would leave them on the hook for part of the blame if the stimulus didn't do the trick...)

--Noam Scheiber

John B. Judis responds to Scheiber, suggesting a much gloomier outcome if the Republicans are successful in significantly diluting the stimulis.