The current GOP line of attack is that the stimulus is a “failure.” Even if you think the stimulus is bad policy, this argument is ridiculous. Maybe the stimulus will ultimately fail, but it’s too early to say anything either way (though it has helped states). In short, the "failure" argument is aimed at the lowest of low-information voters — plus Glenn Reynolds.
But the new GOP attack provides a valuable lesson for people like Max Baucus who are clinging to the hope of winning a few Republicans to provide political cover on health care reform. The lesson is this — it doesn’t really matter what you do, the ultimate law is going to get attacked. So it needs to work. Good policy is the best defense. (Yglesias has pounded this particular drum at various times in the past).
Remember that the two main political attacks against the stimulus were (1) it’s too big; and (2) it’s too porky (Porkulous, honeybees, etc.). Democrats, being Democrats, responded to these attacks in some unfortunate ways.
First, they cut a rather large amount of state aid for no discernible policy reason. Second, they took (and are taking) too long to get the money out.
The broadband grant process is a good example. The process there has moved way too slow. One reason is that officials don’t want to be accused of wasting money. And that’s all fine — but right now, our country would be well-served by paying newly-unemployed people to dig holes in their backyards. I’m not saying we should throw the grant money away — but I think the fears of Porkulus attacks have unnecessarily delayed spending.
And that brings us to today. If the stimulus fails, it will fail because it wasn’t big enough and didn’t get out fast enough.
So here's how this game works: Republican and centrist Dems attack the stimulus and force changes that make it less effective. Then, a few months later, these same parties turn around and attack the stimulus as being ineffective, even though their own requested cuts and critiques made it less effective.
But hey, that’s what the opposition party does. It's what any rational party leader has to expect.
So the lesson for health care is that the attacks will come regardless of whatever accommodations Baucus makes. At the end of the day, it’s better to bite the bullet and get the policy right. Political cover isn’t coming under any circumstances. And more to the point, the pursuit of political cover is itself a dangerous game because it leads people to adopt bad policy for bad reasons.
Of course, the other side of this coin is that the GOP doesn’t have cover either if good reform gets through. That’s their gamble.
And that’s why this fight is going to be so hard — it’s the highest of stakes. The Republicans have grasped this reality — it remains to be seen if the Democrats do.