Sink the ship to drown the captain

Republicans are opposing economic stimulus such as food stamps to boost the chance that Obama loses, says author.

Mitt Romney
Polls show that many Americans think Republicans are stalling on the economy to ensure Obama's defeat [Reuters]

Americans on the political left have been talking about the idea for more than a year, but only recently has the Democratic establishment in Washington embraced it openly, because until now it seemed too incredible – Republicans are engaging in “economic sabotage”. 

The idea is simple: To achieve their stated goal of making Barack Obama a one-term president, Republicans don’t have to share the responsibility of governance. All they must do is block every measure that might create jobs or otherwise boost aggregate demand, which would push the economy into a virtuous cycle of recovery.

Politically, the notion had potential. Americans tend to hold presidents accountable for the economy, good or bad, rightly or wrongly. Given what we have seen since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives – a filibustered jobs act, a near government shut-down, austerity measures, a debt-ceiling crisis, the shrinking of the public sector, a downgrade of US debt, threats to jobless insurance, lambasting the Federal Reserve for its policies, and endless objections to even the suggestion of raising taxes on the rich – the idea seems to have evolved into a bona fide political strategy. Republicans can now cast the election as a referendum on Obama’s economic policies while pushing a candidate whose central campaign tactic seems to be drawing as little attention to himself as possible.

 US economy in focus as election race heats up

In the beginning, the notion of accusing the entire party of such thinking was marginal at best, but eventually it gained traction among respectable Democrats. The first time was in October when Senate Republicans filibustered Obama’s modest $447m jobs bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: “Republicans think that if the economy improves, it might help President Obama. So they root for the economy to fail and oppose every effort to improve it.”

Then last week, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told Capitol Hill reporters: “There’s no intention on behalf of the Republicans in the House of Representatives to try to help the president move this country forward. I quote Jesse Jackson, who I thought said it best, ‘There are a lot people in Washington who want to drown the captain and are prepared to sink the ship in order to do so.'”

Meanwhile, four polls have emerged to suggest that the “economic sabotage” meme is gathering pace among voters. A November survey by Suffolk University found that nearly half of respondents in Florida, including robust numbers of Republicans and moderates, agreed with the following statement: “Republicans are intentionally stalling efforts to jump-start the economy to ensure that Barack Obama is not re-elected.” Separate polls by the Washington Post and Daily Kos, a liberal blog, asked similar questions and got similar results, even among independents and Republicans. This month, a poll by Public Policy Polling showed again that respondents were evenly split, and that 41 per cent blamed Republicans for ham-stringing the president’s efforts. 

Drawing a wider line

If polls are to be believed, there is a slowly growing sense in the electorate that Obama would do the right thing if only Republicans would help. Perhaps this gave the president reason to push back against Democratic pollsters who expressed worry that blaming Republicans might sound like sour grapes. Instead, they want the president to leave the past behind and talk about the future with “maximal empathy” for the plight of ordinary Americans. 

What Democratic strategist James Carville was really saying, I suspect, was that Obama should behave more like two-term President Bill Clinton. But Clinton benefited not from stressing the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the 1990s, but from stressing their similarities. Obama can’t afford to do that in 2012.

He must instead make clear that for three and a half years Republicans have largely stood in the way of almost every step towards economic recovery. He has to make voters see that the election is a choice, not a referendum. The president started doing that last fall when he demanded that GOP leaders “put country before party” and pass a jobs bill. He did it again this month during an address that was later overshadowed by his immigration policy announcement:

“I believe we need a plan for better education and training and for energy independence, rebuilding our infrastructure, for a tax code that creates jobs in America and pays down our debt in a way that’s balanced. I have that plan; they don’t. And if you agree with me, if you believe this economy grows best when everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules, then I ask you to stand with me for a second term.” 

The logical conclusion

As I said, the idea that Republicans are obstructing efforts to revive the economy was once fringe but now becoming mainstream. It took a while because few credible voices wanted to go on record saying a major party fails to promote the welfare of the citizenry. But the evidence, however circumstantial, accumulated to such a degree that it was hard to ignore. And the piles of evidence are getting bigger. 

Last week, the Senate passed a $498bn farm bill that included huge outlays for the food stamp programme, or what’s officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme. Demand for food stamps has risen by 70 per cent since the Great Recession began; 46 million Americans are on them, with surely more to come in future years.

Yet all but 16 Republicans voted against the bill, primarily because of the food stamps, which will cost about $400bn over five years. Republicans and their conservative allies in the media portray the need for food stamps as a “middle-class entitlement” when in fact they are no such thing. They are the result of a financial depression that was mildly mitigated by inadequate counter-cyclical measures. As the Congressional Budget Office said: The reason is a weak economy. 

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York tried to put more money into the programme, saying that food stamps not only help people but they also help the economy. For every dollar beneficiaries spend on food stamps, an estimated $1.72 is generated in economic activity. 

“Under this reasoning, we ought to increase the food stamp programme 10 times,” said Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who opposed the bill. “Why not? We’re going to get more money back. Somehow it’s going to create more stimulus, and it’s going to bring in more money for the Treasury and make the economy grow. Why don’t we just pay for your clothes, pay for your shoes, pay for your housing?”

The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissman asked why Republicans have decided to wage war on food stamps now, and came up with this answer: “If I wanted to impugn the GOP’s motives, I might say that they were trying to snuff out an incredibly successful stimulus programme.”

Weissman doesn’t take this to its logical conclusion – for good reason. A credible voice doesn’t want to sound too incredible to be taken seriously. But given that discussions of Republican “economic sabotage” are now permitted, it makes sense to connect the dots.

So, again. Why are Republicans fighting food stamps? It isn’t because of their concern for the national debt. In May, House Republicans symbolically passed a bill that takes $34bn out of the food stamps programme and puts it into the Pentagon’s budget in order to offset cuts to defence that are due by the end of the year. That’s not an act of fiscal conservatism. That’s just reshuffling the deck.

No, Republicans are trying “to snuff out an incredibly successful stimulus programme” because such a stimulus is going to modestly improve the economy by raising demand, and that’s not good for Republicans or their hopes to retake the White House. As Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont told MSNBC for similar reasons: “You have a Republican mindset that says … if it’s good for America, if it creates jobs, if it’s good for Barack Obama, we can’t do it.”

Even, it seems, if that means letting Americans go hungry.

John Stoehr’s writing has appeared in American Prospect, Reuters, the Guardian, Dissent, the New York Daily News and The Forward. He is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman and a columnist for the Mint Press News.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr