Reflections on the Jim Bunning presidency

by Dave Weigel

Brian Beutler reports and ruminates on the failure of Democrats (at this point I could use a shortcut key to type those three words) to do what seemed like it would be easy -- shame the GOP into going along with unemployment insurance extensions or "jobs bills."

Democrats would have to take significant legislative steps right now to lower unemployment (let alone to keep it from growing). But there's no easy way for them to do that, so instead, with a double-dip recession threatening, they're taking an incremental route.

"President Obama will continue to press Congress to extend unemployment benefits and pass commonsense measures to strengthen our economic recovery - like extending unemployment insurance and COBRA, supporting our clean energy economy, providing aid to state and local governments, and saving the jobs of thousands of teachers," reads a statement from Obama's top economic adviser Larry Summer's today.

Contrast that with the assessment of Obama's chief political adviser, David Axelrod, who this weekend shrugged off the idea that we'll be seeing much, if any, job-growth legislation this year.

"Well, I think it's true that there's not a great -- there's not a great desire [on Capitol Hill], even though there's some argument for additional spending, in the short-run, to continue to generate economic activity," Axelrod sighed. "There's not a great appetite for it."

I think this all comes back to Democrats surrendering on the economic argument since, really, day one of the Obama presidency.

Now, some of this happened out of necessity -- until Al Franken and Arlen Specter joined the Democratic conference, literally everything they wanted to do was subject to filibusters. But from the outset, Democrats confronted a Republican Party that argued for tax cuts and pure, Schumpeter-style creative destruction of failing industries with... well, with what? The stimulus was a mish-mash of spending plans that sounded good and tax cuts that Republicans asked for them didn't vote for. The jobs bills were shrunk to get Republican votes, then they didn't. Democrats believed that deficit spending was the way to dig out of the recession but they apologized for it, and tried to cover it up. You had the president talking to Christina Romer about spending multipliers, then heading on to TV to say the government needed to tighten belts just like American families did.

Was it ever possible for Democrats to win this argument? No, their policies weren't going to work the way they promised, they knew it, and they picked the easy road of bashing Republicans over the hard road of trying to explain why short-term deficit spending and tax hikes down the road worked where tax cuts didn't.