How Republicans, Too, Can Botch the Economy

They’re already losing sight of the nation’s biggest problem—just like Democrats did in 2009.

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If Republicans sweep the midterm elections and take over Congress, as many expect, they'll have a chance to correct some of the mistakes the Obama administration made two years earlier.

Or repeat them.

[See how the middle class is shrinking.]

Politicians repeatedly misunderstand why voters send them to Washington. Every time there's a change in the status quo, the new blood concludes that the electorate has issued a "mandate" and demanded sweeping change. But voters don't always want sweeping change. Mostly, they want the things that aren't working right to work better. Still, the empowered newcomers seize the moment to institutionalize as much of their ideological agenda as possible. Time and again, the overreach turns off voters, and they seek change all over again.

The Obama administration made that mistake when they swept into office in 2009, pushing too hard on pet initiatives like healthcare reform, energy policy, and immigration reform while paying too little attention to jobs and the flat-lining economy. That's why they're in a pickle now. The Dems put too much faith in the huge 2009 stimulus plan, assuming it would float the economy like a massive helium injection as the money flowed out of Washington. It did help end the recession, but wasn't nearly the cure-all that Democrats promised. While turning to other priorities, the Dems failed to generate any meaningful aid for small business, solve the foreclosure problem, address the huge national debt, or figure out what to do about the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of 2010. Their economic policies look like a failure now because they took their eye off the ball.

[See how unemployment will swing the elections.]

Republicans seem poised to do exactly the same thing if they win control of Congress in November.

Republicans, obviously, are campaigning against the Democrats' failure to fix the lousy economy. But their legislative priorities, if they take control of Congress in November, could be even more detached from the actual problem than the Democrats' were in 2009. One top priority of conservatives and Tea Party sympathizers, for example, is repealing President Obama's healthcare reform law, a key plank of the "Pledge To America" that supposedly lays out the Republicans' agenda. "Because the new health care law kills jobs, raises taxes, and increases the cost of health care," the manifesto states, "we will immediately take action to repeal this law."

Oh goody. Unemployment is likely to surpass 10 percent next year, the national debt will continue to spiral out of control, and there's a chance we could descend into another recession. And the Republicans plan to address all that by mounting another vitriolic political battle to return the health care system to the glorious status quo of 2008, when everything was working just fine and all Americans had access to affordable healthcare. Now that is clear forward thinking.

[See 4 things missing from the "Pledge to America."]

Never mind that repealing Obamacare is impossible as long as Obama is president, since he'll obviously veto any measure that would undo what he considers the crowning achievement of his first term. To get around that inconvenience, Congressional Republicans are strategizing with GOP governors to dismantle Obamacare in pieces before it goes into effect, through a combination of lawsuits, delaying actions, counter-regulation at the state level, and political interference in Congress. So any voters who were disappointed when this divisive battle finally ended earlier this year will enjoy a new outbreak of political warfare, if Republicans get their way.

Remember, this is the big plan to help restore the U.S. economy to greatness.

Other Republican priorities outlined in the pledge and in campaign speeches are the usual fare: Lower taxes, fewer regulations, token efforts to rein in Congressional earmarks, and small spending cuts that won't make a dent in the nearly $14 trillion national debt. Republicans want to get the debt under control too, and they're really determined, they just haven't explained how yet.

Here's another idea for whoever ends up controlling Congress: Consider only measures that will lower unemployment, beginning the moment the legislation passes, and put off everything else except matters of national security. When the unemployment rate, which is now 9.6 percent, drops below 7 percent, that will be the signal that it's okay to focus on other stuff.

[See why the Social Security freeze is fair.]

There are obvious problems with Obama's healthcare plan, but they didn't contribute to sky-high unemployment and repealing them won't create jobs any time soon. So leave that alone until the economy has healed. Lower taxes would be great—but only if they're paid for in real terms, rather than empty pledges, and don't raise the national debt any further. Fewer regulations would be welcome, too—as long as it's clear that they'll help create jobs, and not just line the pockets of big business at consumers' expense.

And if the Democrats win by some miracle, they should put off new battles over their own priorities—immigration reform, energy legislation, and some smaller-bore stuff—until they've succeeded on their second effort, or third, to fix the economy. Sure, the government can handle more than one big thing at the same time, as Obama likes to say. But for once, let's not.