It continues to mystify me how John Boehner remains the leader of the House Republicans. The Republican stimulus vote was remarkable in how politically tone-deaf it was. The bill as presented to the House shouldn’t have passed, but it is striking how unwilling the Republican leadership was to back a popular piece of legislation. When confronted with a similar situation in September over the bill authorizing the TARP–the Democrats had a majority but wanted, indeed needed, Republican votes for provide bipartisan cover–the Republican leadership caved and backed a bill their constituents hated and endorsed a measure of dubious merit. Of course, that was four months ago when it might have done them some good electorally. Having blown the obvious opportunity to tap into populist outrage over the bailout, which was supported by perhaps a third of the electorate at most, the leadership now decides to make their stand opposing a bill that commands support from a broad majority of the country, and they do so at a time when their stand, such as it is, will be forgotten by the time the midterms come around.

Indeed, the sudden unanimous opposition of House Republicans to this bill mainly accomplishes one thing, which is to remind everyone of how gutlessly the Republican leadership acquiesced to whatever the Bush administration wanted and how they only managed to discover some interest in resisting massive expenditures when someone from the other party is in the White House. This highlights the past fecklessness and opportunism of the current Republican leadership. Given the current mood in the country, the House GOP in ’10 will probably be received in the country about as well as the House GOP was received during the ’98 midterms. The lesson to draw from the Democrats’ defeat in 2002 is not that cooperation with the White House loses the opposition party seats in the next elections, but that challenging a very popular President on a major piece of legislation (especially when the legislation is also popular) usually ends up costing the opposition party seats.

P.S. Republican leaders may also be putting too much stock in polling that shows greater support for tax cuts as opposed to spending. Posing the question this way can produce misleading results. Naturally, most people likes the idea of receiving tax cuts, but the stimulus bill they just voted down had tax cuts–so why does the leadership think they are on the winning side of this? Even if tax cuts did not account for as much of the bill as the GOP would like, there they were. Voter identification with the GOP has already been sinking–how is opposing this measure going to turn that around? None of this is to deny that the bill in question really was terrible (which is why 11 Democrats could not bring themselves to vote for it), but the poor quality of pieces of legislation has never been a bar to Republican leaders putting their support behind bills in the past.

Update: Good news for Obama: Mark Halperin blames him for the unanimous Republican opposition. As the CW master, Halperin can be counted on to get things about as wrong as possible with great consistency, and here he could not be more wrong. The reality is quite different: House Republicans have just given Obama license to ignore them in future negotiations on the budget and on other major questions. Granted, Obama had the numbers in both houses to do that anyway, but the only thing that will really keep him from writing off the GOP members now is his own interest in being seen as a consensus-builder (or at least someone trying to build consensus).

Second Update: Jim Antle finds it strange that I would criticize the GOP leadership for opposing a bad bill and thinks this makes less political sense than the GOP leadership’s opposition. As I hoped I had made clear in the original post, I was questioning the leadership‘s impressively bad political judgement. Obviously, the House members who voted against the bailout were right in voting against the stimulus in its present form. What I find incredible is the leadership’s utter inability to provide, well, leadership, and Jim acknowledges as much. This is largely the same top leadership in Boehner and Cantor that backed an awful piece of legislation that they themselves didn’t think was worth passing but wanted to be seen doing something, deepening their voters’ disgust with them and possibly making House GOP results worse than they needed to be thanks to depressed turnout. Then, having backed the worst bill of the several they have voted on in the last few months, they have opted to engage in some kind of suicidal penance by opposing bills that are at least perceived to be beneficial to a much larger part of the public and which enjoy the backing of a President with approval ratings 65%+.

Similar to the bizarre McCain campaign’s efforts to appropriate middle-class symbolism while supporting the financial sector bailout, the House leadership managed to associate themselves with the TARP, which their constituents found outrageous, and subsequently have tried to make up for it by resisting measures that a large part of the public is likely to believe are designed to benefit them rather than a select few. It’s as if the leadership wants to strike a populist chord that resonates with middle-class Americans, but no longer has any clue how to do that and manages to oppose only the lousy measures that people tend to like while backing the ones they loathe. If that seems like a smart or effective way to rehabilitate the toxic Republican brand and facilitate a revival of a vehicle for conservative policies, Jim must be seeing something that I am not. Working to thwart the administration’s attempt to use the next tranche of the TARP would be a beginning towards making real amends for the leadership’s initial colossal blunder last fall.

There is something else about the stimulus business that annoys me. The newfound zeal for fiscal responsibility, such as it is, reveals one of the fundamental problems of the GOP leadership, which is its completely unfounded notion that the GOP is now on the skids because of wasteful spending (and earmarks!). This sounds nice, but there seems to be no reason to think this has any merit as a matter of electoral politics. The anti-earmark mania that dominated the presidential campaign and which seems to control the minds of House leaders has prevailed yet again, suggesting that once again Republican leaders have learned absolutely nothing about why they have suffered two major electoral drubbings. The leadership’s flailing, much like McCain’s during the early days of the financial crisis, sends the message that the GOP has nothing to say to the public that cannot be summed up by the phrase wasteful spending. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t oppose wasteful spending, of course, but when they have absolutely nothing else to talk about (except, God help us, the return of the Fairness Doctrine) it is more than a little frustrating to watch.