Monday, February 23, 2009

Are GOP Governors Who Turn Down Stimulus Money Unpatriotic?

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

If someone questioned the patriotism of the Republican governors who have said that they will turn down portions of the federal stimulus money intended for their states, I would have a hard time arguing with them.

Hey, if the Republicans can accuse the Democrats of being unpatriotic when they were in the minority, isn't turnabout fair play? But, actually, the Democrats would have far more basis to make their charge than the Republicans ever did. During the second term of the Bush administration, Republicans often questioned the patriotism of Democrats who sought to have a timetable for troop withdrawals included in Iraq-funding legislation. The White House called the party "Defeatocrats" and accused Democrats of advocating "surrender dates." Such charges were quite disgusting, since, clearly, the Democrats in Congress were laying out a vision of what they thought was best for the United States, not trying to do harm to their own country. Providing a competing vision for the nation's best course of action is not unpatriotic, especially given that it was the disastrous policies and execution of the Bush administration in Iraq that cost the U.S. dearly, in lives lost, lives ruined, money wasted, and respect in the world squandered. Advocating a change was a patriotic thing to do.

The same logic does not apply to the Republican governors passing up money from the stimulus package. In doing so, they are affirmatively taking action that is not in the best interests of their constituents, all for political gain. For example, on Meet the Press yesterday, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana told David Gregory that he would turn down $100 million from the federal government to extend lapsed unemployment benefits for out-of-work Louisiana citizens. (A transcript of the show is available here.) Jindal claimed that to accept the money would require the state to raise taxes on businesses to fund the program after it expires in three years. Which is, of course, completely untrue, as Gregory pointed out, quoting the Democratic U.S. Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu. Jindal responded that the word "permanent" was in the legislation, which meant he had to turn down the money.

This exchange demonstrated how dishonest and baldly calculating the Republican governors are in turning down federal stimulus money. With the economy in crisis (in January alone, nearly 600,000 jobs were lost, leaving the unemployment rate at 7.6 percent), Jindal's job isn't to play politics, it is to aid those in his state who are in trouble. He has an obligation to help his unemployed constituents who would have been saved, maybe from homelessness, maybe from hunger, by the extended benefits. States open and close programs all the time. Even if Jindal was right (which I doubt), that a "permanent" change was needed, what would stop the state from repealing the "permanent" change in three years through state legislative action? Is he really suggesting there is no way to undo the program, ever? And that it is good policy to allow his citizens to suffer needlessly?

If Jindal's game-playing wasn't so damaging to the people of his state, it would be entertaining in its transparency. But Jindal revealed how he views things, even if it was inadvertent, when he said, "My job is to represent Louisiana's taxpayers." No, Gov. Jindal, your job is to help all of your citizens, not just the ones currently paying taxes. When you throw in that virtually every Jindal answer defaulted to the right-wing talking point of him believing that lowering taxes is the way to get through the severe recession, there is no doubt what Jindal was up to. He was playing politics, branding himself and his party in an effort to return to power, all at the expense of the people of his state.

Is that being patriotic?

Jindal and the Republicans think getting back to their "roots" of opposing taxes and spending is the ticket back to power. They believe that by opposing the stimulus package in Congress (not one Republican in the House and only three Republicans in the Senate supported the legislation), and now in the states, they will be able to turn the electoral tide back in their direction after two crushing defeats in 2006 and 2008.

The problem with this strategy is that the Republicans have chosen to rediscover their mythical thriftiness during the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression hit 80 years ago (and after overseeing the creation of a huge deficit after being left with a surplus). In Congress, the GOP members knew that they could put on a show, but that the legislation was going to go through anyway. No harm done. (Last Wednesday, Keith Olbermann on Countdown dubbed Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri the "Worst Person in the World" for putting out a press release and touring his state to tout the stimulus legislation that he voted against. Olbermann said that five Republicans have campaigned on the bill even though they opposed it.)

But the Republican governors don't have that same luxury. When they play political games, they are messing with the lives of their citizens. When Jindal takes unemployment checks out of the hands of a group of his out-of-work constituents, all so he can go on Meet the Press and posture for his political future, he is acting disgracefully. After all, many GOP governors, including Charlie Crist of Florida, who appeared on the show right after Jindal to defend his cooperation with the Obama administration, have demonstrated that helping their fellow Americans has to take precedence over partisan gamesmanship.

From a political point of view, I applaud the pigheaded opposition of GOP governors like Jindal and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. While they may govern safe red states, associating Republicans with doing nothing during a crisis is certainly political gold for the Democrats. But with things so tenuous now, and with people genuinely hurting, I cannot sit back and enjoy the political self-destruction, knowing that real people in real trouble will be damaged by the political game-playing of the Republicans.

When Republican governors put scoring political points over aiding their fellow Americans during a time of crisis, are they acting in a patriotic manner?