In politics, very few questions have “right” answers. Much of this ambiguity comes from endless spinning that both major political parties engage in to win 24-hour news cycles. Even statistics aren’t useful in clarifying anything because politicians of conflicting beliefs can assess the same situation and deploy data to advance their own causes. One example of this phenomenon is the debate over jobs: GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney says unemployment has been above eight percent for 43 straight months under the current administration (until the September jobs report came out), while President Barack Obama claims there have been “31 straight months of private-sector job growth.” Same situation, two starkly different assessments, neither wrong!
Sometimes, the only right answers that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on are: A. always praise the troops, and B. offering prayers to disaster victims. However, these two ideas are obvious and not worth discussing.
Therefore, to find some useful right answers, we must look past combative words and fluffy rhetoric to carefully examine what politicians actually do. And although few answers in politics are definitively right, you can get pretty close to a right answer by seeing what Democrats and Republicans agree on when they’re away from the debate lecterns. A good case study for across-the-aisle agreement is President Obama’s stimulus bill, one of his first major pieces of economic legislation.
The Obama stimulus bill has been pilloried in public by Republicans for the past few years, and these attacks are in keeping with a chief tenet of modern conservatism: The government is inept at creating jobs. As Romney said earlier this year, “Government doesn’t create jobs. It’s the private sector that creates jobs.” Most GOP congressmen would agree with Romney if publicly asked about this statement.
But what happens when those same GOP congressmen have to govern? In July 2009, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — one of the GOP’s many Obama stimulus critics — applied for up to $235 million from the stimulus to invest in electric vehicles for Kentucky, the state he represents. His application, which had to be approved by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is a tacit admission that the government is able to create jobs through economic stimulus. McConnell even states in his memo: “I hope you will realize the importance of such job creation to Kentucky.”
Current Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan has also derided the Obama stimulus over the years, but he too is guilty of pursuing money from the very stimulus he condemns. In October 2009, Ryan asked Chu to approve a geothermal project for a company in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. Apparently, he believes that government stimulus can create jobs for his constituents. And many GOP congressmen actually agree with him (quite a few of them have applied for money too) — just not in public.
Since stimulus money is a finite resource, congressmen not only have to apply for it, they have to make specific and compelling cases to the White House regarding the money’s job-creation potential. Therefore, when GOP congressmen simultaneously rail against the stimulus and apply for funding, they must know that they’re being dishonest and hypocritical. Ryan and McConnell would find more friends across the aisle if they simply admitted to the stimulus bill’s virtues. After all, they’ve lobbied explicitly to that end — just ask Chu.
Of course, Republicans have often championed the government’s ability to create jobs in defense (that’s why they’re always against defense cuts), so government job creation is not without evidence. But they’re never willing to publicly admit that government could extend its job-creating capacity to other economic sectors. Somehow, FDR’s New Deal isn’t a relevant precedent.
Some conservatives might argue that regardless of rhetoric, the Obama stimulus was implemented and hasn’t produced adequate jobs. I won’t contest the notion that the economic recovery has been somewhat sluggish. However, since we now know that both Democrats and Republicans believe in government job creation, the public needs to consider the possibility that the stimulus wasn’t large enough, instead of the theory that government cannot create jobs. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has critiqued the Obama stimulus in this way, stating that while the president has passed a “somewhat disappointing economic plan,” at least “a third of a loaf is better than none.” Krugman also contends that the Obama stimulus was watered down by unnecessary tax cuts, and I think we all know which party pushed for those reckless cuts. Imagine what a whole loaf of stimulus would have done and imagine how excited (albeit secretly) McConnell and Ryan would be about more economic stimulation.
My main motive here is not to demagogue Republican economic policy, but to assert that Keynesian economics is alive and well in both parties. We may never know exactly what the right answers are to our country’s most pressing issues, but when both sides agree on an answer, that agreement might be as close as we get. Let’s move forward from there.
Dar-Wei Chen is a University alum.