The ‘s’ word Republicans used to love: stimulus

Reader B.D. emailed me this morning about an interesting 2002 vote in the House that enjoyed unanimous Republican support. The measure, among other things, extended unemployment benefits, reauthorized the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant program, and included some new business tax breaks.

It was called, at the time, an “economic stimulus bill.”

Up until fairly recently, Republicans were not only comfortable — rhetorically and substantively — with government-backed “stimulus” measures, as Ezra Klein noted today, it was considered “orthodox conservative policy” during the Bush/Cheney era.

Up until 2009, the debate wasn’t about whether to stimulate the economy during downturns, but how. Both sides believed in bolstering demand, but disagreed with the methods — Republicans believed tax cuts would lead to more spending, which would increase demand and grow the economy; Democrats believed tax cuts were indirect and inefficient, and preferred public investments.

But they were at least part of the same conversation. When the economy faltered, both parties saw value in injecting capital into the economy in order to create demand. All of this has, of course, now changed. In less than a decade, one Republican orthodoxy has been replaced with an entirely different one. Ezra considers the motivation behind the shift:

Some say the explanation for all this is obvious: Republicans want the economy to fail because that is how they will defeat President Obama. After all, didn’t Sen. Mitch McConnell say, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”? How much clearer can it be?

I don’t believe this sort of behavior is quite that cynical. Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences. […]

I tend to think there’s much more motivated skepticism in politics than outright cynicism, much less economic sabotage. But it’s a distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go.

Regular readers know I tend to see the resolution of this question quite differently. Ezra believes GOP officials aren’t that cynical; I believe they’re absolutely that cynical. Indeed, I tend to agree with a different piece Ezra wrote last week, when he argued that the “fundamental fact” of American politics right now is that Republicans are principally concerned with winning in 2012, not fixing the economy. “Boehner,” he wrote, “simply will not cut off his party’s candidates at the knees, especially its presidential contenders, by handing Obama a major economic accomplishment.”

That’s pretty cynical, and I think it’s entirely correct: Boehner is willing to hold back the economy, on purpose, as part of an election strategy.

It’s unlikely Republicans want the country to suffer, per se, but it seems plausible to me that they see this as a temporary approach — they’ll undermine the economy and abandon their previous principles for just a little while, and then see what they can do to help Americans in 2013. They can’t act sooner, though, because it might help Obama.

And they can’t have that.