Explaining the Stimulus Vote

Explaining the Stimulus Vote

By Jay Cost and Sean Trende - January 29, 2009

Last night's House vote on the stimulus bill was a fascinating one. The entire Republican caucus voted no, while all but eleven Democrats voted yes. There's been talk today about why both sides behaved the way they did, so it is worth a closer look. We can understand most of it via some simple cost-benefit analysis, taking each party in turn.

The Republicans

For the GOP, it is fairly easy to see why the vote went the way that it did. Assume that Republicans had largely voted "yes." There is a serious downside to such a vote. There is a strong sense among the Republican rank-and-file that the party's defeats are in part tied to its abandonment of fiscal responsibility over the past eight years. Voting for $900 billion in deficit spending would have done little to assuage these concerns. To illustrate the potential dangers, one need only examine the trajectory of Saxby Chambliss' Senate race after his "yes" vote on TARP. And given that Republicans didn't manage to kill the bill outright, the risk of being blamed for any further failure of the economy is minimal.

On the other hand, the upside of a "yes" vote is difficult to see. The Republicans need many more members if they want to have a hand in the House's legislative process. But minority parties rarely (if ever) make large gains in Congress by being seen as bipartisan. If Republicans and Democrats vote for Obama's stimulus and it works, the credit will largely accrue to Obama and, by extension, the Democrats. No Republican is going to defeat a Democrat by saying, "He voted for a bipartisan stimulus package and it worked!" Republicans might stave off further losses, but given how few Republican seats in Democratic territory are left, the risk of further losses at this point is small. If Republicans vote for the stimulus and it fails to revive the economy, they might share a portion of the blame - but Obama and the Democrats would shoulder most of it. Recall the vote on the Iraq War, for which about half of Democrats voted. That did not stop the public from eventually assigning blame squarely on Bush and the GOP.

What about a "no" vote? The upside is immediately easy to see: the Republican base is happy. It allows Republicans to reclaim more plausibly the mantle of fiscal responsibility and limited government. While one vote won't cure the reputation for profligacy the Republicans earned in the 2000s, it is a step in that direction.

The downsides of "no?" If the stimulus fails, there is no downside. Going into 2010 with high unemployment and an extra trillion dollars in debt doesn't offer Democrats much on which to hang their hat. If the stimulus works, there is some risk for Republicans - as they might appear to have stood in the way of recovery. But this will be tempered by three factors.

First, voters tend not to "throw the bums out" when things are going well. Some Republicans like Mike Castle (R-DE) might have trouble with a "no" vote if things turn out okay, but ultimately the voter will likely look at their swelling bankbook and vote for their incumbent regardless. To use another Iraq example, there was no wholesale expulsion from Congress of Democrats who voted against okaying the use of force in the first Gulf War, though Republicans hoped and believed this might occur.

The second factor that insulates Republicans from a downside is the fact that there just are not that many Republicans in vulnerable seats. Only ten Republicans represent districts with a Cook PVI that favors the Democrats, and only two represent districts that lean more than a point or two toward Democrats. This has likely changed somewhat after the last election, but since PVI's are relative to the national performance, it probably hasn't changed radically. Republicans have lost 50 seats over the last two elections. There just isn't much dead wood left. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, Democrats only managed to pick up nine seats in the 1934 midterms, after shellacking Republicans in back-to-back elections.

Third, the linkages between policy inputs (like the stimulus bill) and policy outputs (like the economy) are invariably fuzzy, and therefore politically contestable. What jump-started the economy in the 1990s after the recession at the start of the decade? Ultimately, it depends on which side you ask. Republicans will tell you one thing, Democrats another. The contestability of this linkage enables politicians to engage in the tried-and-true practice of credit claiming or blame avoidance, depending on the circumstances. Anybody who has ever seen an ad for Congress in which the incumbent ran against "business as usual" in the House knows exactly what we're talking about.

In other words, for Republicans there really wasn't much downside to voting "no," especially since the bill passed anyway. There is plenty of upside, though, especially if the bill is as bad as some say it is, and it fails to jolt the economy back to life. People may support the bill overwhelmingly today (just as they supported the Iraq War), but if the bill doesn't work, that support will dissipate quickly.

A final thought on the House GOP. What about the idea that President Obama has a mandate, and that Republican lawmakers should respect that? The principle behind a mandate is that the President represents the voice of the people, and that this is sufficient to demand the support of the legislature.

There are two problems with this concept.

First, what is the voice of the people? E.E. Schattschneider said it best in his classic treatise Party Government: "The people are a sovereign whose vocabulary is limited to two words, 'Yes' and 'No.' This sovereign, moreover, can speak only when spoken to." What matters, then, are the questions that the parties present to the people. And in 2008, the question was simply, do you prefer Barack Obama or John McCain? In itself, the public's answer does not necessarily imply any policy demands. A voter might have actually preferred McCain's perspective on stimulus, but voted for Obama because he believed he was right on the Iraq war. Another might have voted for McCain because of cultural issues, but thought Obama had the better stimulus idea. And so on. Ultimately, there is no way to identify what, if any, policy proposal Obama's victory represents.

This is why mandates are generally a problematic concept. Elections are "about" many things, but not necessarily the same things to every voter. Politicians actually facilitate this confusion by strategically selecting issue positions and emphases to string together a majority, one whose only unifying concept is simply that they prefer this person to hold this office. Thus, politicians typically lack the ability to say, "I am in office because the people demand this measure be implemented!" - which is what a mandate implies. Consider the case of Obama in particular. He campaigned on reviving the economy and cutting spending. This stimulus bill attempts to do one at the expense of the other. Can we really say that this is consistent with his mandate, whatever that is?

There's a second complication with "mandates." Obama might have a mandate, but can't Boehner, Cantor, and each House Republican claim one for themselves? They can each say "I won," as well - which means that they were "empowered" by "the people" in their constituencies to do a certain job. So, this actually makes the concept of a mandate more difficult to implement - for it implies that there can be competing mandates. This is par for the course in a constitutional system that divides power across multiple branches.

Our attitude is that mandates are inherently political. Though they are cloaked in the language of democratic theory, they are more a matter of what adroit politicians can claim for themselves in the face of the opposition they face. This means that mandates are best judged by their policy results. Presidents who enjoy great policy successes (as Roosevelt did in his first term) can be seen as having had a "mandate," while Presidents who do not (as Bush did in his second term) can be seen as not having one.

The Democrats

The Democratic votes are more straightforward. First, there was no doubt that the bill would pass - House Democrats simply couldn't hand the Obama Administration a defeat on its first major initiative. When it comes to the economy, it's simply true that his success is their success; his failure is their failure. Predictive models of congressional elections almost always take into account presidential job approval - to borrow a phrase from Professor James Campbell, congressional elections have a presidential pulse. So, House Democrats know that lack of support would diminish the President's standing, which might ultimately threaten their own seats.

Interestingly, there were several defections in the caucus [Boyd (FL-02), Bright (AL-02), Ellsworth (IN-08), Griffith (AL-05), Kanjorski (PA-11), Kratovil (MD-01), Minnick (ID-01), Peterson (MN-07), Shuler (NC-11), Taylor (MS-04), and Cooper (TN-05)]. These seem to have no real rhyme or reason. Looking at the ideological scores for the seven who were in the last Congress, we see that they tended toward the right side of the spectrum. All but Kanjorski were among the fifty most conservative Democrats. But we note that a number of the more conservative Democrats - like Childers (MS-01), Barrow (GA-12) and Altmire (PA-04) - voted "yes." Additionally, the partisanship of the defectors' districts doesn't solve the puzzle, either - as there is a good mix of lean Democrat and lean Republican districts, especially when one considers the heavy movement toward Obama that occurred in Ellsworth's district. We'll probably never really be able to ascertain why Boyd voted no in his R+2 district while Bean voted yes in her R+5 district. What we can say is that, for whatever reason, these eleven Democrats interpreted the "mandate" from their own victories very differently than their Democratic colleagues.

Sean Trende can be contacted at

Jay Cost and Sean Trende

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter