May the best economic policy win

Republicans are on a roll.

Swing voters have fallen out of love with President Obama and his party, and many are willing to give the opposition a chance. Washington’s chief prognosticator, Charlie Cook, forecasts that Republicans are increasingly likely to win control of the House and even stand a chance of taking over the Senate, an idea that seemed far-fetched only a month ago. And weeks of bad economic news have only made the Democrats’ problems worse.

But do the Republicans have workable solutions? It’s worth taking a good look at the economic platform House GOP leader John A. Boehner of Ohio outlined for his party last week, since he may well take over Nancy Pelosi’s job as speaker.

Boehner won cheap headlines by calling on Obama to fire his chief economic advisers, Lawrence H. Summers and Timothy F. Geithner. But the meat of the GOP leader’s economic speech in Cleveland was more interesting, because it rested on sharp positions on two issues that should be central in the 65 days of campaigning that remain before the Nov. 2 election.


Boehner said a new, Republican-led Congress would focus its initial efforts on two areas: First, it would stop the stimulus program, cancel billions of dollars in spending that hasn’t been committed and push for “aggressive” further cuts in federal spending.

Second, it would reject any income tax increase on “families and small businesses,” no matter how high their income — specifically including the increase on households earning more than $250,000 a year that Obama has proposed.

Boehner argued that Obama’s economic stimulus policies have not only failed to produce economic recovery but that they are actively preventing a recovery from taking hold.

“Right now, America’s employers are afraid to invest in an economy stalled by ‘stimulus’ spending and hamstrung by uncertainty,” he said. “The prospect of higher taxes, stricter rules and more regulations has employers sitting on their hands.”


Those aren’t new positions; tax cuts are the core of Republican orthodoxy, and Boehner has been campaigning against Obama’s stimulus all year.

More interesting is that he didn’t even try to show how he would reduce the deficit over the long run; his stimulus cutoff would produce only a short-term saving, not a long-term fix.

But in a year when Republicans want to make the congressional election a national referendum on Obama’s policies, the GOP leader’s speech was a useful step toward focusing the debate on its essentials — not mosques or oil spills but how to get the nation’s economy humming again.

Voters now have two competing economic theories to choose from: Obama’s Keynesian stimulus, which holds that short-term deficit spending by the federal government will make a recovery come faster (though some liberals would say he hasn’t spent nearly enough to turn things around), and Boehner’s seemingly pre-Keynesian Republicanism, which holds that federal spending always hurts and that lower taxes spur the economy.

Which vision will voters buy? Boehner, in his conservative orthodoxy, may be making an argument that goes too far for most voters.

It’s true that polls show most Americans don’t think Obama’s stimulus spending has done much good; with unemployment stuck at 9.5% — who can blame them? But that may not mean that they actually want to stop the spending and find out what happens.

A USA Today/Gallup poll in June found that 60% of respondents said they actually favored more federal spending “to create jobs and stimulate the economy.” If Democrats bring out a chorus of economists and governors to warn about the layoffs that a stimulus halt could bring — think teachers and police officers — Boehner’s position may look less attractive.

The GOP’s stand against tax increases on the wealthy (which means allowing the tax cuts they received under then- President George W. Bush to expire) is no guaranteed vote-winner either. A CBS News Poll released last week showed a majority (56% to 36%) in favor of allowing income taxes to increase for households making $250,000 a year or more. In that poll, even Republicans were evenly divided on the issue (although other surveys, with different wording, have found more ambiguous results).


Democrats, of course, have already started attacking the Republican message.

Vice President Joe Biden, standing in for the vacationing president, argued that the stimulus has saved or created 3 million jobs, and warned that extending the Bush tax cut for families over $250,000 would deepen the deficit by almost $700 billion over 10 years. And Biden quickly pivoted to the White House’s favorite talking point — the argument that Boehner and his Republicans merely want to reinstate Bush’s economic policies.

“Mr. Boehner is nostalgic for those good old days, but the American people are not,” Biden said.

But the Democrats are going to have to do better if they want to win this argument. For one thing, Boehner and his colleagues have renounced the economic policies of the Bush administration; they now say Bush, like Obama, spent too much.

“We need a more consistent focus on the economic message,” a leading Democratic strategist fretted to me last week. “It’s an issue we can win on, but the focus on it in the White House has only been episodic so far.”

That should change after Labor Day, when the Democrats send their two best persuaders, Obama and former President Clinton, onto the campaign trail. Boehner has laid down a clear challenge for them. It has the makings of a first-rate debate.