More Republicans might have supported the stimulus had President Obama not forfeited control of the national conversation to dogmatic deceivers like Rush Limbaugh, who at times seemed more of a national GOP leader than the Kentucky senator who is the party's ranking official in Washington. He bragged that Obama is "obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell."
McConnell's pollster, Jan van Lohuizen, told the Los Angeles Times that Limbaugh "motivates a core Republican, who is a very important part of the Republican coalition, and we need those guys to be interested and active. But it's not enough. The Republican Party has shrunk and it needs to be expanding."
McConnell, who told the Republican National Committee that the GOP must expand, was not dogmatic about the stimulus, focusing his criticism more on its size than its content. He surely knows that all spending is stimulus, but some types of spending are better than others, such as programs with potentially recurring costs. The questionable parts of this Christmas-tree bill were relatively small, but like shiny metal ornaments they drew voters' attention when exposed to the sunlight.
In Washington, the question was largely how much to prime the pump. In Frankfort, it was which taxes to raise.
Most Republicans voted against the tobacco and alcohol taxes that were the easy Band-Aids for the state budget, and some rivaled their Washington counterparts for silly demagoguery. "Is America over with?" state Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown blurted during a radio discussion of state finances.
But the key Republican leaders in the legislature voted for the bill, and in fact were essential to crafting it, cutting Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's cigarette-tax hike by more than half and replacing it by applying the sales tax to packaged alcoholic beverages. Their cooperation gives hope that they can accomplish a larger, more needed, long-term task: modernizing the state's tax system.
The role that Senate President David Williams of Burkesville played in the negotiations, and in squeezing the necessary votes from his fellow Republicans (including most in the Senate), surely surprised observers who remember Frankfort's top Republican in his first nine years in the Senate's big chair - a partisan brawler who fought tax increases and bested Democrats at nearly every turn.
Before he became a Senate leader, though, Williams was often Democrats' favorite Republican, voting for the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 and avoiding partisan dogma that casts government as a problem to be solved, not a way to solve problems. He was no Rockefeller Republican, but his early career was more like that of his Southern Kentucky neighbors, Gov. Louie Nunn, U.S. Rep. Tim Lee Carter and Sen. John Sherman Cooper.
So Williams finally reached the point where the politically advantageous dogma of spending cuts had to give way to the need to preserve programs. Poor, small counties like those in his district would have found it difficult to cope with cuts in education so late in the year.
Of course, Williams has another constituency, the Senate Republican caucus that makes him leader. He has prided himself on keeping the caucus together on almost every major issue, but this time there was no way to get the votes of most knee-jerk conservatives who signed the stupid, dogmatic pledge to oppose all tax increases.