Opinion

The stimulus roundabout

To the victor go the spoils. The Democrats won big in November, and now they are helping themselves to rewards on a commensurately gigantic scale. They have the votes, and now they have the money. Congratulations to them.

But can we please be spared the pretense that any of this has very much to do with today’s economic crisis?

If the Democrats’ top priority were to put the most money fastest directly into consumers’ pockets, they would suspend the payroll tax. Bang: up to $120 per week to every worker in America. It could start next week. It could be made retroactive to September 18 for a real impact. It’s progressive too, since nobody would get more than $120 per week, no matter how much they earned.

Instead, we are futzing around with federal spending projects that are slow or silly or both. If the crisis is as urgent as President Obama says, why is he content with a program that postpones most of its impact until 2010? Last week, Shrum compared the Republicans to zombies; this week to the Taliban. But if I were a Democrat, the analogy that would most concern me would be the analogy to the Iraq war.

After 9/11, President Bush (supported by me, among others) argued that the right way to respond to a terrorist attack from Afghanistan was by overthrowing Saddam Hussein. We offered a complicated explanation for this roundabout response, and for a time the public accepted it. But as the war went wrong, and failed to deliver the promised results, our plan’s credibility collapsed.

Now the Democrats have placed themselves in a similar situation. They are offering an indirect answer to an immediate question. The suspicion arises that they had decided the answer long before the crisis ever materialized—that they are using the crisis as an excuse to do what they had long wished to do anyway, for reasons that they are not stating in full.

If things go well, perhaps nobody will notice or care what the stimulus was designed to do and what it was not designed to do. But what if things don’t go so well? Then there will be trouble. As the people who tracked George Bush’s poll numbers can attest, Americans don’t have a lot of patience for unnecessary failure.

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