Selling the Stimulus: How Republican Spin Is Dominating the Narrative, and What Democrats Need To Do To Fight Back
Yesterday, my friend Creature noted that public support for the current economic stimulus plan has fallen to 37 percent, attributing this decline to “the failure of Democrats to get their message out.” Ryan Avent, linking to Steve Benen, made the same point over at Yglesias’s place: “[C]onservatives are winning the public relations battle, and as a result, public support for stimulus is falling.”
I agree with this assessment. As bad as things are out there — as many jobs as are being lost, as many homes as are being foreclosed on, as bleak as the present seems and as even worse as the future is expected to be, that is, as historically terrible as the state of the economy really is — it is the opponents of the stimulus plan, and by that I mean, of course, the conservative ideologues of the Republican Party, are dominating the narrative and dictating the terms of the debate, with a gullible media establishment playing right along, dutifully reporting on how bad things are out there even as it wallows in and magnifies the manufactured sensationalism of political conflict in Washington.
The media establishment and its predictable pandering to the right aside, though, these Republicans are just doing what they have to do, or what they think they have to do, for partisan political gain. You can’t fault an animal for doing what it is in its nature to do, and that goes for political animals as well. Republicans are being Republicans, and the media are being the media. The problem is that the Democrats are also being the Democrats, which, lest we forget, means not effectively standing up for themselves and countering Republican propaganda with their own direct appeals to the American people. Just as the Republicans dominated (and won) the national conversation on the war on terror and the Iraq War, such as there was one, so are they now dominating the national conversation on the stimulus plan, winning the political game and driving down popular support for something the economy and the people so badly need.
Thankfully, as Benen pointed out, the plan’s proponents are finally waking up, or at least showing signs of pushing back against the tsunami of right-wing spin. They’re getting to it late, but better late than never, not least with the plan now in the Senate, where apparently the Democrats don’t have enough votes to pass it in its current form — and where even moderate Republicans are trying to cut what is already too small a plan to do what is necessary for the economy.
The apparent lack of public support for the plan is worrisome, but, as Nate Silver found (via Alex Koppelman, with a Democratic source who contended that “the bill is still likely to pass the Senate in time for Congress to send it to President Obama to sign before Presidents’ Day”), examining not one but several polls, there is actually “little evidence that it is unpopular in the here and now.” The problem, of course, is that the plan is complicated, not to mention expensive, and, as Silver notes, “a figure like $800 billion is never going to be an easy sell.” This is what allows the Republicans, with their typically effective spin machine, to gain the upper hand. They can scare people with the sheer magnitude of the plan while also picking out parts of it that may generate additional opposition, all the while putting the blame not on those who, in Creature’s words, “drove this country into the ditch,” but rather on Obama and the Democrats, on those who are actually trying to do something constructive to get the country out of the mess it’s in.
The bipartisan route has been taken, and Republicans have responded by voting in unison against the plan in the House, by seeking to shrink it in the Senate, and by waging an all-out public relations war for pure partisan gain. It is time, long past time, for Obama and the Democrats to fight back and to do what is right for the country. To do any less is to let the Republicans get away with continuing their long history of harming both the economy and the American people, and to fail to do what is necessary at this moment of crisis.
For more on this, and on what Obama needs to do, see Michael Hirsh at Newsweek:
The reason Obama is getting so few votes is that he is no longer setting the terms of the debate over how to save the economy. Instead the Republican Party — the one we thought lost the election — is doing that. And the confusion and delay this is causing could realize Obama’s worst fears, turning “crisis into a catastrophe,” as the president said Wednesday.
Obama’s desire to begin a “post-partisan” era may have backfired. In his eagerness to accommodate Republicans and listen to their ideas over the past week, he has allowed the GOP to turn the haggling over the stimulus package into a decidedly stale, Republican-style debate over pork, waste and overspending. This makes very little economic sense when you are in a major recession that only gets worse day by day. Yes, there are still some very legitimate issues with a bill that’s supposed to be “temporary” and “targeted” — among them, large increases in permanent entitlement spending, and a paucity of tax cuts that will prompt immediate spending. Even so, Obama has allowed Congress to grow embroiled in nitpicking over efficiency when the central debate should be about whether the package is big enough. When you are dealing with a stimulus of this size, there are going to be wasteful expenditures and boondoggles. There’s no way anyone can spend $800 to $900 billion quickly without waste and boondoggles. It comes with the Keynesian territory. This is an emergency; the normal rules do not apply.
But the public isn’t hearing about that all-important distinction right now. And by the time Obama signs a bill — if he can get one approved — many Americans may have concluded that the GOP is right and that the Democrats have embarked on another spending spree, as if this were just another wearying Washington debate.
Thankfully, Obama has begun to fight back. (The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne has more on this today.) He can win this. He just needs to get out there, make his case, and rally his party behind him.
(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)