The Corner

Economy & Business

Adam Serwer’s Stimulus Fantasy

President Donald Trump speaks during a signing ceremony for the $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid-package bill as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Vice President Mike Pence, and Rep. Kevin Brady stand by in the Oval Office at the White House, March 27, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

For a certain brand of progressive, there is no end to the effort to project invidious motivations onto conservatives and Republicans by ignoring simpler explanations for their behavior and more obvious distinctions between situations. Adam Serwer argues that there must be some nefarious reason why people who opposed President Obama’s $787 billion “stimulus” bill in early 2009 would support the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill:

It wasn’t government spending the Tea Party opposed, it was government spending on “losers,” imposed by the party that the “losers” had brought to power. That’s why a less-than-$1 trillion bill meant to stave off a depression garnered enough outrage from those on the right to start a movement, while a piece of legislation more than twice its size prompts celebration by those same people. The CARES Act, the largest spending bill in American history, sparked no Tea Party rebellions, no protesters in tricorne hats, no cries of “take our country back,” and no invocations of “Second Amendment remedies.” The illegitimacy of Democratic Party governance, not the size of the deficit, the reach of the federal government, or the fact of economic stimulus itself, was the problem.

Of course, the two situations are not comparable. One involved an ordinary (if unusually large) financial crisis, and thus presented straightforward questions of economic philosophy. The other is not a stimulus bill at all, but a relief bill in response to government-ordered closures of the economy. It is paying people who were effectively ordered to stop working, rather than spreading around taxpayer money in the hopes that this will be the most efficient way of encouraging work and investment. Serwer simply hand-waves this:

The distinction between 2009 and 2020 cannot be explained by the fact that this economic slowdown was a necessary part of combatting the coronavirus. Although those affected today are hurting through no fault of their own, the same was true of millions of Americans in the Great Recession.

The difference between situations goes far beyond “fault;” it is a fundamental difference of legislative purpose.

Also, unlike here, the Obama stimulus was not the first response to the 2008 housing crisis. First, as Serwer notes, “Under President George W. Bush, a much smaller stimulus had passed the Senate with more than 80 votes.” “Much smaller” is the key — it may not be entirely principled for politicians to bend their professed convictions on smaller points but stick at abandoning them on a massive scale, but escalation has a tendency to wake people up. Second, there was already a TARP bailout in the fall of 2008 designed to avoid systemic damage to the economy. Even with Bush still in office, there was a revolt of House conservatives, sufficient to defeat the first crack at TARP and require a lot of arm-twisting to get the final version passed. Serwer argues that “most Republicans — including McConnell, Graham, Grassley, and Alexander — had voted for the 2008 bank bailout prior to voting against the stimulus,” which glosses entirely over the House fight (even on the final Senate TARP vote, 15 Republicans voted no). Then there was an automaker bailout. Many Republicans simply felt that an additional $787 billion larded with pork-barrel projects was a bridge too far and likely to result in more waste than help. Obama’s promise that the money would not be wasted because Joe Biden was overseeing it (remember “nobody messes with Joe”?) turned out to be a cruel joke.

None of this is to deny, of course, that there were partisan dynamics and incentives for Republicans to walk away from the 2009 stimulus. Partisanship is always part of the equation in Congress. It is likewise true as a more general matter that congressional Republicans have had even less stomach for actually stopping runaway spending under Bush and Trump than they did under Obama. But there is no need to invent baroque theories of behavior in order to recognize why even sincere and devoted fiscal conservatives could oppose the 2009 stimulus package but supported the coronavirus relief bill.

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