Republican leaders in Congress have so far given a tepid reaction to President Barack Obama's jobs bill, a modest $447 billion mix of tax cuts and spending intended to spur hiring across the country. Washington has become such a hyper-partisan place of late that anything less than a categorical rejection of his proposal by the opposing party is seen as a positive.
But let's make no mistake, the GOP response sounded suspiciously like the kind of "thanks for the offer and we'll take a look" that a lot of unemployed Americans have heard before. It's the sound of polite rejection.
The proposals "merit consideration," is how House Speaker John A. Boehner, a man obviously accustomed to golf course courtesies, greeted the president's offer last week. "There are areas we can agree on," was the surprisingly optimistic-sounding assessment from House Majority LeaderEric Cantor.
But those were the highlights. Others in the GOP deemed it a Democratic "reelection plan" or an example of a White House that "just doesn't get it." The reaction of die-hard tea party members would be more widely quoted, but a lot of them skipped the speech entirely. Republican candidates for president had the predictable response, which is to say, they'll support the incumbent on any economic policy about the same time the Susquehanna River runs bone-dry.
Let's face it. Republicans are looking at the plan President Obama presented to Congress on Thursday as a child looks at a buffet with vegetables piled high at one end and dessert at the other. Most are more than willing to line up for tax cuts, no matter how little help they might be for the unemployed; the broccoli of stimulus spending holds far less appeal. Don't expect much of a queue at that end of the table.
Oh, and please spare us lectures about the federal deficit, all you born-again fiscal conservatives. There are two widely accepted economic principals in question here. The first is the long-term need to bring federal spending and tax revenues in balance; if the circumstances were different and the country's economy were in the midst of a full recovery, we'd agree that any expansion of the already-sizable federal deficit should be rejected.
But the recovery that was limping gamely along in 2011 has lost whatever modest momentum it had, and the situation has become increasingly dire. The latest jobs numbers are not good, and the 14 million unemployed in this country need help. Such circumstances cry out for a short-term government boost to employers — whether it's in the form of government contracts or tax policies that encourage expansion. This, too, is a reasonable economic principle to be followed.
What Republicans — and everyone else in the nation's capital — should be focused on right now is the real possibility of a double-dip recession that would delay recovery beyond 2014. That's frightening, and it's also real, as some economists have rated the likelihood for such a scenario as 50-50.
Should that happen, you can bet that there'll be little chance of reducing the budget deficit. Deficit cutting requires an economic recovery to be in progress. Without one, the cuts in government spending will just add to the downward economic spiral.
Here's a truly horrifying thought: What if 2012-minded Republicans are so steadfastly opposed to allowing President Obama any further victories in Washington that they would oppose a jobs bill even in the face of such a possible disaster?
Has our political system really become that dysfunctional? Should GOP leaders fail to embrace some reasonable jobs program — and what Mr. Obama has proposed already fits that criterion — it will take more than good manners to convince voters (Democratic, swing, and perhaps even some die-hard Republicans) that they're not selling out the country for the sake of ideological purity.