Remember How Republicans Lost in 2010 Because of the Stimulus? Me Neither.

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I dissented from the old conventional wisdom that Paul Ryan’s budget plan was substantively courageous. But even after the Democrats won control of a Republican congressional district Tuesday night by bashing Ryan’s proposed Medicare cuts, I’m not quite ready to endorse the new conventional wisdom that his plan is politically fatal. Because if springtime special elections in upstate New York were reliable crystal balls, President Obama’s stimulus would have been the game-changing issue that put Democrats over the top in the 2010 midterms.

What, you don’t remember when the stimulus was popular?

Well, Jim Tedisco and Scott Murphy do.

Tedisco, the Republican leader in the state assembly, was the big favorite to win a special election in New York’s 20th Congressional District on March 31, 2009. Murphy, a software entrepreneur from Glen Falls, started the race 20 points back in the polls. They were competing to replace Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who had taken Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s place in the Senate, but the district still had a modest Republican slant, and Murphy was a political newcomer.

But President Obama’s $787 billion economic recovery package passed in mid-February, and the race quickly turned into a referendum on the stimulus.

After Murphy endorsed the package, saying it would provide middle-class tax relief and create jobs, Republican groups ran ads declaring that “Democrat Scott Murphy’s support of the pork-laden federal stimulus shows a complete lack of fiscal responsibility.” Meanwhile, Vice President Biden cut a radio ad praising Murphy for supporting the plan, “because it means 76,000 jobs for Upstate.”

Tedisco initially refused to take a stand, which only elevated the issue. The more reporters hounded him, the deeper a hole he dug for himself with split-the-difference parsing. And when he finally admitted shortly before the election that he would have voted no like every other House Republican, Democratic groups ran ads of an ostrich’s head in the sand: “Doesn’t Jim Tedisco notice that our economy is in trouble? He opposes Barack Obama’s plan to create jobs and cut our taxes.”

When Murphy eked out a half-point upset, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee crowed that “Scott Murphy’s victory in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 70,000 represents a rejection of the obstructionist agenda and scare tactics that have become the hallmark of House Republicans.” The media basically agreed that the GOP was writing its own obituary by opposing a popular President’s recovery plan during an economic emergency.

But Murphy was a good candidate, a clean-cut centrist businessman who emphasized his big extended family in clever ads. (I knew Murphy in college, when he was still a long-haired left-winger.) Tedisco was an experienced lawmaker but an uncomfortable candidate who couldn’t decide what to do on a defining issue, and seemed to buckle under pressure from national Republicans who wanted a united anti-stimulus front. And it turned out that the popularity of the stimulus in March 2009 was fleeting.

That’s one reason Murphy is currently an ex-congressman, a victim of the GOP wave in 2010. Republicans ran hundreds of ads trashing the stimulus during that cycle; Democrats wouldn’t even say the word “stimulus.” That obstructionist agenda turned out to be electoral gold.

Incidentally, I’ve dissented from the conventional wisdom that the stimulus has been a failure. I’ve vigorously dissented. I’ve repeatedly dissented. But now that I’ve been assigned to be a political pundit, I’m going to try hard not to make the classic mistake of assuming the people in their great wisdom must think exactly what I think. (Although I reserve the right to make the classic mistake of assuming the people are ignorant or deluded when they don’t think whatever I think.) Anyway, regardless of what I think or Paul Ryan thinks or the voters of upstate New York think, two years is a long time in politics.