The Return of the Hoover Party
As the American auto industry teetered on the brink of collapse in December, Vice President Dick Cheney beseeched his GOP allies in Congress to back an aid package, warning, "If we don't do this, we will be known as the party of Herbert Hoover forever." Now as they seek to obstruct President Obama's recovery program even in the face of catastrophic job losses, Capitol Hill Republicans have clearly decided to shun Cheney's advice and go for a full Hoover.
As the Great Depression deepened in December 1930, Hoover spoke the words that defined the Republican conception of government inaction then and now:
"Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement. Economic wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body - the producers and consumers themselves."
Willfully ignoring history, economics and just plain common sense, Republicans in Washington seem determined to follow in Hoover's footsteps. And as with a fish, the rot starts at the top.
Last week, new Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele reintroduced Hoover to the American people. Ignoring the hundreds of thousands of jobs created by everything from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the TVA to the interstate highway system and NASA (among myriad other government initiatives over the past three generations), Steele declared:
"And first off the government doesn't create jobs. Let's get this notion out of our heads that the government creates jobs. Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job."
With the CBO's job creation estimates for the House version of the stimulus package ranging as high as 3.6 million (and Steele himself later admitting it "will create several hundred thousand at best"), Steele's mythmaking is nonsensical on its face.
On Capitol Hill, a similarly egregious assault on Economics 101 is being perpetrated by his GOP minions. As massive revenue shortfalls threaten draconian budget cuts and steep reductions in the states, even Republican governors support federal action. But while 43 states face budget deficits and 34 so far slashing education funding (led by Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed $6 billion bloodbath in California), Nevada Senator John Ensign offered a 21st century version of Hooverism in response:
"To get back to what Congressman Frank said, is that we're going to be laying off teachers and firefighters. You know, that's just fearmongering. We're not going to be doing that in any of the states... [The states'] budgets are bloated, the federal government's budget is bloated. What we should be doing is cutting back."
Eager to engage in brinksmanship with President Obama over Americans' economic well-being, the new Hooverites are also playing games of semantics. After the President warned, "If we don't move swiftly to put this plan in motion, our economic crisis could become a national catastrophe," Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) called Obama's "dangerous words" and adding, "It seems to me that the president is rather casually throwing out some careless language." In a bid to remain relevant, Kyl's Arizona colleague and defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain returned to the stage to regurgitate some GOP talking points of his own:
"This bill has become nothing more than a massive spending bill. To portray it as stimulus flies in the face of reality."
Repeating the same mantra, freshman Nebraska Republican Senator Mike Johanns on Wednesday offered a similar paean to Hoover:
"This is not a stimulus plan, it's a spending plan. [It] won't create the promised jobs. It won't activate our economy."
Of course, to portray it as stimulus is merely to provide a dictionary definition. As President Obama noted during address to House Democrats on Thursday:
"So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? That's the whole point. No, seriously. That's the point."
Obama isn't alone in reminding Republican know-nothings that the proposed government spending is by definition stimulus in the same way the sky is blue or the sun sets in the West. As Steve Pearlstein summed it up in his devastating critique ("Wanted: Personal Economic Trainers") in the Washington Post:
"Where does the senator think the $800 billion will go? Down a rabbit hole? Even if the entire sum were to be stolen by federal employees and spent entirely on fast cars, fancy homes, gambling junkets and fancy clothes, it would still be an $800 billion increase in the demand for goods and services -- a pretty good working definition for economic stimulus. The only question is whether spending it on other things would create more long-term value, which it almost certainly would...
...Spending is stimulus, no matter what it's for and who does it. The best spending is that which creates jobs and economic activity now, has big payoffs later and disappears from future budgets."
Faced with these inescapable truths, the neo-Hooverians of the right have launched a new project to rewrite history. Using a rhetorical time machine, Republican politicos and their conservative echo chamber are traveling backwards to deny the successes of Roosevelt's New Deal. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently (and wrongly) put it:
"But one of the good things about reading history is you learn a good deal. And, we know for sure that the big spending programs of the New Deal did not work. In 1940, unemployment was still 15%. And, it's widely agreed among economists, that what got us out of the doldrums that we were in during the Depression was the beginning of World War II."
Needless to say, McConnell's is a butchery of the economic record and historical fact. But for the right, FDR-denial has become more than a convenient tactic; it's now (as Paul Krugman suggests) a required gambit. Facing job losses, stock market declines and home foreclosures (among other maladies) at alarming rates not seen since the Great Depression, Republicans must claim that their head-in-the-sand policies then as now were the correct course of action.
Herbert Hoover famously said, "I'm the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him." If his modern acolytes in today's GOP keep up their obstructionism, he may not be alone in economic infamy for long. After all, Americans are already suffering from the Bush Recession. If Hoover's heirs don't get out of the way, it could become the Republican Depression.