As the president fought for his economic recovery agenda, the Republicans launched a fierce counterattack. The presidentâ€™s plan, according to Newt Gingrich, would â€œkill jobsâ€ and â€œactually increase the deficit.â€
This was not Gingrich criticizing the Obama stimulus program in 2009. It was Gingrich attacking then-President Bill Clintonâ€™s economic plan in 1993.
This week, as President Barack Obama promises to spend more of the stimulus money to improve the economy, Republicans â€” including some of the same spokesmen â€” are on the attack again. â€œBureaucrats managing companies does not work,â€ Gingrich said recently. â€œPoliticians dominating the economy does not work.â€
To be fair, Republicans should fight for free markets and free trade. History shows that the invisible hand of the marketplace works more effectively than the heavy hand of government. And much of Obamaâ€™s economic agenda appears to be all motion and little action.
But when Republicans paint a dark picture of economic doom, they also paint themselves into a political corner.
The lessons of the 1990s should give Republicans pause. After Clinton increased both spending and taxes in 1993, the economy began a steady ascent. Sure, when Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they reduced taxes and balanced the budget, undoubtedly helping this growth and prosperity. But in 1996, voters instead remembered the overheated GOP rhetoric of the early â€™90s, considered the countryâ€™s economic strength and voted Clinton into a second term.
Republicans should reflect on this past. As they oppose the Obama agenda, they need to do it the right way, and they need to do it in a way that doesnâ€™t contradict their core economic message.
The American economy is stronger than the policies of any one administration. The creativity of Americaâ€™s entrepreneurs can overcome any of the federal governmentâ€™s policies. In fact, throughout American history, economic downturns have often led entrepreneurs to create new products and services that have led to new economic growth. Any Republican message needs to begin by acknowledging that the economy will bounce back. It always has; it always will.
Perhaps no one possessed a better grasp of Americaâ€™s economic power than Ronald Reagan. Yet when Reagan addressed excessive government, he often spoke in measured, philosophical terms. â€œThey also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy,â€ Reagan said in his famous 1964 speech supporting Barry Goldwater. In other words, big government wonâ€™t destroy the economy â€” it just wonâ€™t help it very much. Thatâ€™s a much firmer terrain from which to fight the Obama administration.
In his 1981 inaugural address, Reagan posed a simple question: â€œBut if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?â€ These were not the words of an ideologue but, rather, the wisdom of a populist who put his faith in the people â€” not the government â€” to restore the economy.
For todayâ€™s Republicans, rather than oversimplified characterizations of economic decline, why not bet on the American entrepreneur? Instead of saying Obama will kill jobs or ruin the economy, why not argue the larger principle that businesses can resurrect the economy better and faster than the government can?
We know the economy will recover. We also know that, when it does, it will be in spite of Obamaâ€™s spending, not because of it.
But Republicans are setting the stage for an Obama encore by insisting that his policies will fail. When the economy inevitably returns to growth, Obama will be well-positioned for reelection. And if he is, perhaps heâ€™ll quote the governor of Alaska and say, â€œI told you so.â€
Kasey S. Pipes authored â€œIkeâ€™s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equalityâ€ and wrote speeches for then-President George W. Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.