A weak defense

A WEAK DEFENSE…. Democrats are pushing the stimulus hypocrisy line pretty hard this week — Republicans say they hate the stimulus, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to secure recovery funds for their states/districts. Republicans, perhaps worried about the effectiveness of the criticism, have embraced a straightforward response.

Conservative economist Greg Mankiw summarized the GOP argument, calling the Democratic cries of hypocrisy “baffling.” (thanks to reader C.L. for the tip)

It seems perfectly reasonable to believe (1) that increasing government spending is not the best way to promote economic growth in a depressed economy, and (2) that if the government is going to spend gobs of money, those on whom it is spent will benefit. In this case, the right thing for a congressman to do is to oppose the spending plans, but once the spending is inevitable, to try to ensure that the constituents he represents get their share. So what exactly is the problem?

Let me offer an analogy. Many Democratic congressmen opposed the Bush tax cuts. That was based, I presume, on their honest assessment of the policy. But once these tax cuts were passed, I bet these congressmen paid lower taxes. I bet they did not offer to hand the Treasury the extra taxes they would have owed at the previous tax rates. Would it make sense for the GOP to suggest that these Democrats were disingenuous or hypocritical? I don’t think so. Many times, we as individuals benefit from policies we opposed. There is nothing wrong about that.

This is no doubt the official Republican line. Indeed, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) made the identical argument, with the exact same analogy, on “Meet the Press” over the weekend.

But the response is deeply flawed. The hypocrisy charge may sting, but it’s also entirely legitimate.

It’s not complicated — Republicans have claimed, forcefully and repeatedly, that the stimulus effort was a mistake. The recovery spending couldn’t generate economic growth and was simply incapable of creating jobs. The entire endeavor, the GOP said, was a wasteful boondoggle, and they’re proud to have voted against it. Republicans rejected the very idea on ideological and policy grounds.

Now, we know the substance of these claims is demonstrably ridiculous, but the key to the hypocrisy charge is appreciating what else these same Republicans have said. When it comes to their states/districts/constituents, the identical GOP lawmakers have said the stimulus can generate economic growth, can create jobs, and can make an important and positive difference. In some cases, Republicans have even taken credit for stimulus projects they opposed — projects that wouldn’t even exist if they had their way.

GOP officials can take one position or the other, but when they embrace one side in D.C. while talking to the media, and then the opposite side when dealing with their constituents, it’s more than just stupid — it’s hypocrisy.

As for Mankiw’s analogy to the Bush tax cuts, this also doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. The only way this would make sense is if Democrats opposed and voted against Bush’s policy in D.C., and then went back to their states/districts to take credit for the tax cuts and boast about how effective they were.

The fact that the hypocrisy charge seems to make Republicans nervous is itself encouraging. That the GOP has not yet come up with a coherent response should encourage Dems to keep it up.