Wrong But Not (Entirely) Hypocritical

By Mike Dorf

According to many Democrats, the Republicans have been engaged in an extraordinarily cynical grand political strategy over the last three and a half years: First they used every lever available to prevent President Obama and the Democrats from enacting their full economic agenda; then, when the reduced economic agenda that did manage to get enacted came up short, Republicans claimed (and continue to claim) that the Democrats had their chance and failed.  Paul Krugman laid out a nice summary of the argument in his column yesterday.

There's much that's right about this story.  That's what prompted Jon Stewart to say something bleep-worthy when he played the clip of Mitt Romney's acceptance speech in which Romney made the following incredible claim: "I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed."  This from a man who has been running for president more or less full time for the last six years.

But there's also a fair bit that's not quite right about Krugman's story.  Although Republicans did obstruct, so-called "blue-dog" Democrats were instrumental in preventing the President from getting the bigger stimulus that economists like Krugman wanted.  Moreover, by putting his economic policy in the hands of Tim Geithner and (for a time) Larry Summers, Obama signaled from the beginning that he was not interested in bold progressive action.

Of course, these are criticisms of Obama from the left, not the right.  Seen within the truncated bounds of what can be accomplished on the American political spectrum, the obstructionist charge has teeth.  Certainly one can find examples of politicians (including Romney and Mitch McConnell) saying that they hoped Obama's policies would fail so that he would only serve one term.  But it's still not clear to me that the Republican obstructionism of the last 3.5 years is mostly hypocrisy rather than ideological commitment.

To make sense of the Krugman narrative, one must begin with the premise that Republicans know that Keynesianism is right, so that increased government spending during a recession would lead to economic growth.  However, according to the Krugman narrative, in order to sabotage the economy, the Republicans voted against stimulus measures, hoping that as a consequence the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats would get the blame.

Is this a plausible account of Republicans' behavior over the last several years?  I think the answer is yes for some but no for most.  Most Republicans are ideological Hayekians, who believe that stimulus spending gives the economy a short-term boost that is not self-sustaining, causing more damage in the long run.  When such people voted against the stimulus in 2009, they thought the were blocking a harmful program.  Thus, when they look at the anemic pace of the recovery, they think that if only we had let the economy find its natural bottom, we would be doing better now.  For them, the stimulus was too large, not too small.

Krugman thinks the Hayekian view of the economy is so clearly wrong that Republicans can't really believe it.  And not only can he point to 2009 statements by Republicans saying that they wanted Obama to fail; he can (and did) also point out how Republicans do appear to believe in the power of government military spending and stimulus through tax cuts.  So the Republicans are just claiming to be Hayekians as the thinnest cover for their real goal of harming the economy and thus leaving Obama and the Congressional Democrats to blame.

But people believe all sorts of crazy things that contradict other things they also believe.  Indeed, even people that Krugman does not regard as otherwise-crazy sincerely believe the Hayekian line.  They're called Europeans.  Sure, it has been a disaster for them, but the fact that so many of them have stuck with austerity for so long--even when, as in the case of the UK, they have their own currency and so could have tried massive stimulus--just goes to show the power of an idée fixe.

Accordingly, I do not think it has been shown that the GOP as a whole engaged in a cynical game of deliberately tanking the economy to gain political advantage.  Most of the party's elected officials probably  really believed--and continue to believe--that by opposing Democratic Keynesianism they were helping the economy.  Lucky for them (in a political sense), they were wrong.