POLITICS
03/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

GOP 'Salt Marsh Mouse' Stimulus Strategy Assailed By Conservatives

As the Economic Stimulus Package hurtled toward an agreement last week, I was taken aback by the last minute derailment strategy the GOP undertook -- something about a salt marsh mouse that Nancy Pelosi was going to give a million billion dollars to, and subsequently celebrate in this year's Folsom Street Fair, because it's the most liberal rodent in the country. "How deliciously old-school!" I thought, adding, "And inane! And ineffective! And embarrassing!" Apparently, I wasn't alone in these sentiments. Take David Frum, for example:

The problem with the story is not that it was false. The problem with the story is that it was stupid.

The US economy has plunged into severe recession (94% of Americans describe economic conditions as "bad," according to the Feb 2-4 CBS poll, and 51% say conditions are getting even worse).

President Obama and the Democrats have responded by steering the US radically to the left. Since World War II, the federal government has most years spent less than one dollar in five of national income. Once the stimulus gets underway, the federal government will spend more than one dollar in four. The cost of everything the Democrats want to do comes closer to one dollar in three.

We're facing more regulation of everything from high finance to the ordinary workplace. The Democrats are expanding Medicaid to crowd out private insurance. The federal government wants a huge new role in redirecting private investment in transportation and energy in the name of "green jobs."

And facing all this - we're talking about mice?

Could we possibly act more inadequate to the challenge? More futile? More brain dead?

We in fact have a constructive solution to offer, one that would deliver more jobs faster: the payroll tax holiday, an idea endorsed by almost every reputable right-of-center economist. But that's not the solution being offered by Republicans in Congress. They are offering a clapped-out package of 1980s-vintage solutions, including capital gains tax cuts. Capital gains! Who has any capital gains to be taxed in the first place?

Naturally, the merits of Frum's alternative ideas are up for debate, but, that's sort of the point, isn't it? Frum is basically denying the primacy of capital gains-focused tax cuts thrice before the cock cries morning, and that's something of a radical step for a party that's bitching about radical west coast fauna. It's also the sort of thing that Ross Douthat has been writing about in the Atlantic for some time, so it's not surprising that he's got Frum's back on this:

[T]oday's Republican Party has no leaders at all, if you define leaders as politicians with the credibility and power to chart a new course for the party, as opposed to having it charted for them by the GOP's most vocal constituents and most ideological backbenchers. John McCain was mistrusted by the base, but he at least had run, and won, a national primary campaign, and thus could claim a mandate to lead the party with at least some degree of plausibility. Whereas the GOP's leaders in Washington, your Mitch McConnells and John Boehners, owe their power entirely to backroom politics: Nobody loves them, nobody trusts them, and as a result they're in no position to execute the kind of pivots that the party needs to make. One can reasonably expect them to do better than they've done to date when it comes to articulating an actual alternative to Obamanomics - i.e. more Larry Lindsey, less Jim DeMint - but one can't expect them to do much better. They simply don't have enough room to maneuver.

As I see it, there are a few ways to imagine the GOP acquiring the kind of innovative leadership it desperately needs. In one model, somebody who's already in the party's D.C. leadership builds up enough credibility with the conservative base - by successfully derailing some key Obama initiatives, for instance - to promote a new policy agenda without being dismissed as a sellout. The Grand New Party-reading Eric Cantor would be an obvious candidate for this role, and so might Michael Steele, if the GOP has a good midterm election cycle. Both men seem like forward-thinking politicians who are trapped, at the moment, by the need to say the things (and only those things) that the party's base wants to hear; both might become something more impressive if they get some victories under their belts.

Personally, I think that Douthat is wildly overestimating the leadership and innovative abilities of Cantor and Steele (especially Steele). But if the GOP is going to return to any degree of success, it's going to be on a wave of creative ideas that target the fortunes of the middle and lower classes -- a wave that eschews the bloodlusts of the old identity politics. Really, Douthat couldn't have summed up the current state of play on the GOP side better than this: "The more likely road to revival for the GOP probably starts outside Washington, with politicians who can afford to be experimental without constantly worrying about what Rush Limbaugh would say about them."