‘The normal rules don’t apply’

‘THE NORMAL RULES DON’T APPLY’…. If you haven’t seen, Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsh has a sharp analysis of the dysfunctional nature of the stimulus debate.

Barack Obama began making his comeback Wednesday, apparently aware that he has all but lost control of the agenda in Washington at a time when he simply can’t afford to do so…. The reason Obama is getting so few votes is that he is no longer setting the terms of the debate over how to save the economy. Instead the Republican Party — the one we thought lost the election — is doing that. And the confusion and delay this is causing could realize Obama’s worst fears, turning “crisis into a catastrophe,” as the president said Wednesday.

Obama’s desire to begin a “post-partisan” era may have backfired. In his eagerness to accommodate Republicans and listen to their ideas over the past week, he has allowed the GOP to turn the haggling over the stimulus package into a decidedly stale, Republican-style debate over pork, waste and overspending. This makes very little economic sense when you are in a major recession that only gets worse day by day…. Obama has allowed Congress to grow embroiled in nitpicking over efficiency when the central debate should be about whether the package is big enough. When you are dealing with a stimulus of this size, there are going to be wasteful expenditures and boondoggles. There’s no way anyone can spend $800 to $900 billion quickly without waste and boondoggles. It comes with the Keynesian territory. This is an emergency; the normal rules do not apply.

But the public isn’t hearing about that all-important distinction right now.

Opinions obviously vary, but I suspect the president and his team believed common sense would prevail, and perhaps that political norms really did shift in November. (I loved DougJ’s line: “[L]et’s admit that what we have here is a media and Congressional Republican assault on economic common sense. No one expects an assault on common sense. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition either. But when either comes, you’d better react.”

And while I find the notion of a president who’s been in office for two weeks mounting a “comeback” a little silly, I do think the White House realizes its misstep. A top Obama advisor told E. J. Dionne, “We didn’t give it as much air cover last week as we should” have, adding, “We lost a week.”

Hirsh didn’t specify what Obama should do to get the debate back on track, but it’s clear the West Wing has a few ideas. Tuesday, he did a series of interviews, hitting the right notes. Yesterday, he delivered some pointed remarks, noting the practical and ideological failures of the recovery package’s detractors. Today, he has an op-ed on the subject, which we’ll talk more about in a bit.

Despite having dangerous and demonstrably ridiculous ideas, it seems as if Republicans have been dominating a debate in which they’ve had no opponent. The White House is finally getting in the game.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation