Democrats got what they wanted in the stimulus bill. The public knows it.
By FRED BARNES
It usually doesn't happen this quickly in Washington. But President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are finding that the old maxim that what goes around, comes around applies to them, too. Less than six months into his term, Mr. Obama's top initiatives -- health-care reform and "cap and trade" energy legislation -- are in serious jeopardy and he has himself and his congressional allies to blame.
Their high-pressure tactics in promoting and passing legislation, most notably the economic "stimulus" enacted in February, have backfired. Those tactics include unbridled partisanship, procedural short cuts, demands for swift passage of bills, and promises of quick results.
With large majorities in Congress and an obsequious press corps, Mr. Obama was smitten with the idea of emulating President Franklin Roosevelt's First 100 Days of legislative success in 1933. Like FDR, Mr. Obama tried to push as many liberal bills through Congress in as brief a time as possible.
He made a rookie mistake early on. He let congressional Democrats draft the bills. They're as partisan as any group that has ever controlled Congress, and as impatient. They have little interest in the compromises needed to attract Republican support. As a consequence, what they passed -- especially the $787 billion stimulus -- belongs to Democrats alone. They own the stimulus outright.
That makes them accountable for the hopes of a prompt economic recovery now being dashed. With the economy still faltering and jobs still being lost, Mr. Obama's credibility is sinking and his job approval rating is declining along with the popularity of his initiatives. Republicans, who had insisted the stimulus was wasteful and wouldn't work, are being vindicated.
The political fallout that mattered most, however, has been among Democrats in the House who will face tough re-election fights next year. They're in a state of near-panic over the lingering recession. Their confidence in Mr. Obama is fading, and they no longer believe in quickly passing the president's agenda. Cap and trade has been put off until the fall and health-care reform is starting to stall.
For Mr. Obama, this is all a potentially disastrous turn of events. On Capitol Hill, delay favors the opposition and tends to lead to defeat. The longer a bill sits around, the more its contents are dissected and the less likely it is to pass. Mr. Obama realizes this fact, which is why he is pressing for a quick vote on his health-care reform.
His plan has been to exploit the economic downturn to enact his entire agenda, not just the stimulus. The president's position, which he repeated again this week, is that his health, energy and education reforms are necessary to create a sustainable economic recovery. It's a clever political argument, but it makes little economic sense and few people buy it.
That's not all. The stimulus is such a large increase in spending that it turned the deficit into a political issue. There is a growing national wariness to adding billions (or trillions) to the budget, even for a relatively popular cause like health care.
Had Mr. Obama and Democrats proceeded differently, they'd have better odds now for enacting their agenda. They are victims of their own tactics.
Republicans hold 41% of the seats in Congress. That's a position of weakness, but not completely powerlessness. Rather than ignoring GOP proposals, Democrats might have been better off giving Republicans 20% of the stimulus funds to spend. Republicans probably would have spent it on tax reforms that encourage economic growth. Had that happened, the stimulus might have provided a mild boost to the economy by now.
Or what if Democrats had heeded Republican advice and trimmed the size of the stimulus? The economy wouldn't be any worse for it, but the deficit and public fear of it would be smaller.
During the presidential campaign last year, Mr. Obama said he was committed to bipartisanship. But congressional Democrats aren't, as he surely knew. They rejected input from House Republicans on the stimulus -- without a peep of protest from the president. Minor concessions to three Republicans gave them the 60 votes to pass the bill in the Senate.
The president's vow of bipartisanship wasn't the only promise to crumble. Democrats said they'd give Republicans (and the public) 48 hours to read a bill before a vote. But the final version of the 1,071-page stimulus package was unveiled in the House at 1 a.m. on Feb. 13 and passed later that day after one hour of substantive debate. Every Republican voted no. The Senate vote came 16 hours after the three renegade Republicans agreed to an amended version of the stimulus.
In urging fast action, Mr. Obama sounded apocalyptic: "If we do not move swiftly to sign the [stimulus] into law, an economy that is already in crisis will be faced with catastrophe. . . . Millions more Americans will lose their jobs. Homes will be lost. Families will go without health care."
Once the stimulus passed, Democrats said the impact would be practically instant. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) predicted "an immediate jolt." Economic adviser Larry Summers said, "You'll see the effects almost immediately." White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said it would "take only weeks or months" to be felt.
A similar sequence of appeals, claims, promises and a speedy vote was followed when the cap and trade bill, which would put a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions, came before the House on June 28. The bill's architect, Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), presented a crucial 300-page amendment at 3 a.m. It passed 16 hours later.
But even that was not fast enough. Mr. Waxman was irritated by House Republican leader John Boehner's hour-long address in opposition. As Mr. Boehner spoke, Mr. Waxman demanded he be cut off. He wasn't, but after Mr. Boehner finished, Mr. Waxman asked the presiding officer, who was then Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D., Calif.), how long the "two minute speech" had lasted. "The customary amount of time" for the minority leader, she replied.
Mr. Waxman's testiness won't make final passage of cap and trade easier. Nor will the Obama administration gain from its crude attempt last week to punish -- and silence -- Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) for saying the stimulus should be cancelled. Four cabinet members wrote to his governor, Republican Jan Brewer, to ask if she wanted to forfeit stimulus money for her state.
Mr. Obama's health-care and energy initiatives, the core of his far-reaching agenda, were bound to face serious opposition in Congress in any case. Hardball tactics and false promises have only made the hill he has to climb steeper. Now he may lose on both. The president and his congressional allies should have known better.
Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a commentator on Fox News Channel.