WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At a campaign event in New Hampshire on Friday, Mitt Romney once again sharply condemned the stimulus package passed during the president's first month in office, calling it "the largest one-time careless expenditure of government money in American history."
The former Massachusetts governor has offered the line before. But this time he chose a backdrop to drive home the point: He delivered the indictment in front of a veritable "bridge to nowhere" -- a 19th-century bridge no longer used for traffic that received $288,000 in restoration funds.
Romney has long made the stimulus a top example of government waste incurred under the leadership of the current president. But his position on the bill was, at the time of its passage, much more nuanced. Romney opposed the measure, going so far as to counsel congressional Republicans to vote no and push a preferred alternative. But he also hedged his political bets, arguing that the stimulus package crafted by Democrats would do some good.
"It was my belief that we should have put in place a stimulus plan earlier than the one that was put in place," Romney told columnist James Pethokoukis on March 2, 2009, shortly after the stimulus passed. "And I don't think the president's plan is as focused and targeted as it needed to be. But nonetheless I think it has some portions that will help."
Later in the interview Romney warned that the prospects of a "quick rebound" in the economy were still "quickly fading." The main focus of his concern was about stimulus package itself -- that the legislation didn't have the right priorities.
An extensive review of Romney's interviews from that time shows that he wanted a bill that cost from $400 billion and $450 billion. Instead of the tax rebates that Democrats included, he pressed for permanent reductions in certain tax rates, including the payroll tax rate. Romney conceded that some spending was needed. Specifically, he wanted to expedite spending that was already scheduled for certain items or projects, including repairs for damaged or shot-down helicopters and infrastructure. But items like replanting the grass on the National Mall routinely attracted his derision.
"It's a bill that has a lot to do with stimulus but a lot to do with other things as well," he told Fox News in late January 2009, in reference to the House-crafted stimulus bill.
"And frankly, I think the American people recognize that we're walking on an economic tightrope right now and that this is not the time for excessive borrowing. It's also not the time for spending money on a wish list of congressional favors that people have been asking for," Romney added.
"This is a time to be very serious about helping build our economy," he said. "And spending hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives or hundreds of millions of dollars even on nice things like helping teenagers understand the risks of sexually transmitted diseases -- this has nothing to do with economic stimulus."
Democrats would, in the end, scale back the size of the stimulus package produced by the House. They would also add more tax cuts to the package, primarily out of a desire to elicit the support of the chamber's more moderate members. Romney cheered the changes during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"The president's plan for economic recovery, including a stimulus bill that includes a very healthy dose of tax reductions, is something which I think showed a willingness to listen to some of his own economic advisers," Romney said. "That's encouraging."
The final stimulus package included an estimated $300 billion in tax cuts; though a full accounting by The New York Times put that total at about $266 billion.
This, in the end, was enough to persuade just a handful of Senate Republicans to back the proposal. Republicans in the House unanimously opposed it, with Romney helping to lead that charge. He gave a speech at a House Republican Conference retreat, saying he was "convinced that a stimulus is needed" but not the package assembled by the Democrats.
"We're on an economic tightrope," Romney declared. "That's why it is so important to exercise extreme care and good judgment. So far, the Democratic leadership hasn't shown a great deal of that."
Romney even gave aid to members of Congress who took a risk by voting against the stimulus package. His political action committee sent $1,000 checks to a group of House Republicans being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee because of their votes. The list, according to the Associated Press, included Judy Biggert and Mark Kirk of Illinois; Ken Calvert and Dan Lungren of California; Michael Castle of Delaware; Charlie Dent and Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania; Blaine Luetkemeyer and Thad McCotter of Missouri; Dave Reichert of Washington; and Pete Sessions of Texas. All of those members, save Castle, are still in Congress.
The politics of opposing the stimulus was much more complicated then. At the time, even several prominent Republican governors were readily accepting stimulus money in hopes of closing budget shortfalls. Romney acknowledged that were he still in office, he might very well have done the same but he still had objections to the bill. The idea of injecting money into the economy was not a bad one. It was just the method that he had a problem with.
"Barack Obama, you're right, is sending out billions of dollars to American taxpayers," he told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on Feb. 9, 2009. "And we're saying, Look, that's a wonderful thing to do, but give it to them in the form of a tax reduction because that has a bigger, proven impact on creating jobs. Likewise on your spending, don't spend all this money on new programs that will take years and years to get under way. Let's get the jobs going now."