Trump taking credit for stimulus checks is good politics

Democrats should take a cue

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

President Trump wants to make everyone know who to thank when their coronavirus aid comes in the mail: namely, Donald J. Trump.

A big chunk of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress recently passed will be individual aid payments to millions of Americans — $1,200 in many cases, but phasing out for individual incomes above $75,000 a year. About 80 million people got that money as a direct deposit in their bank account. But for the other 70 million, it will be coming as checks in the mail. And the Washington Post just reported that President Trump's name will be on each check.

Needless to say, outrage quickly ensued — and not just from Democratic lawmakers, but from economists, former civil servants, and government watchdogs as well.

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There are two complaints: One, that putting Trump's name on the checks may delay their delivery. And two, that Trump is using what should be a "nonpolitical" process for political gain. "Where you see the dying and suffering of your fellow Americans, Donald Trump sees another opportunity to promote himself — and, by extension, his reelection campaign," tweeted Walter Shaub, a former director of the Office of Government Ethics.

Bluntly put, the second gripe that Trump is "promoting himself" with this stunt is essentially a gripe that he is engaging in good politics. On that score, his opponents would do well to emulate and learn from him.

But first, let's talk about that delay.

Trump will not be signing the checks as if he authorized them; that role is for a Treasury Department civil servant, again to maintain the "nonpolitical" norms of the process. But the name "President Donald J. Trump" will appear in the memo line on the left side of the checks, underneath the words "Economic Impact Payment." No president's name has ever appeared on checks from the Internal Revenue Service before, and apparently the idea originated with Trump himself.

According to the Post, IRS staff are scrambling to change computer code to make this happen, and you can sort of deduce from there that a slowdown in the checks' disbursement is likely. "Any last minute request like this will create a downstream snarl that will result in a delay," Chad Hooper, the president of the IRS’ Professional Managers Association, told the Post. This would be especially grotesque because the Americans getting physical checks are generally poorer and less privileged people with less access to the banking system — they need speed the most.

That said, the Treasury Department insisted the checks will go out on schedule. "There is absolutely no delay whatsoever," a Department spokeswoman said in a written statement. It's also possible that a holdup, if it happens, will be due to the administration's general incompetence rather than the inconveniences of the request itself. The plan to put Trump's name on the checks was reportedly underway for weeks, but IRS staff weren't informed until Tuesday.

At any rate, delaying money aid that Americans desperately need in the midst of a crisis, purely for political gain, is obviously a crass thing no one should do. But let's set that aside: Assuming this could be done without any logistical delays, was it still inappropriate for Trump to do it?

Ironically, Trump's move is a mirror reflection of a long-running complaint that Republicans usually have with Democrats: that the party effectively "buys votes" with everything from big public investments to universal health care policy and generous welfare programs like food stamps. "Your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this: if they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff," Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told supporters in 2012. "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for [President Obama] no matter what... who are dependent upon government," he said at another event. The implication is there's something fundamentally illegitimate or unsportsmanlike about getting people to vote for you simply because you helped them out materially. Instead, voters' decisions should be based on disinterested high principles or something.

Nor is this the first time Republicans have acted contrary to their own rhetoric when it benefited them. When President George W. Bush signed stimulus checks into law to combat the 2001 recession, he couldn't get his name on them. But after some jostling with the IRS, his administration did manage to get a letter included with the checks: "We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes," it read.

Compare that with the Obama administration's handling of the 2009 stimulus: instead of sending checks, it buried the tax rebate in people's monthly tax withholding. The thinking was this would make them more likely to spend it — a conclusion since disputed by economic research. But one thing the subtlety definitely accomplished was that Obama and the Democrats got no political credit: they cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, but fewer than 10 percent knew it.

The Republicans may be flaming hypocrites on this point. But they know smart politics when they see it.

Jack Meserve noted in Democracy Journal that Democrats used to know it too: Social security checks and infrastructure projects built by New Deal programs didn't literally say "brought to you by President Roosevelt." But the administration used posters, plaques, signs, and other materials to make sure voters knew they could thank proactive government efforts for all that. And voters knew who was in the White House at the time, rewarding Roosevelt with four terms in office. "Keep it simple and take credit," as Meserve advised.

And really, what is the point of democracy, if not to judge which lawmakers do the best job improving citizens' circumstances, and to then reward those lawmakers with more time in office to do more good? If, for instance, a Democratic White House and Congress push through an increase in food stamps, and that increase improves millions of Americans' livelihoods — their families and their financial security — shouldn't those Americans vote Democrats into office again? And shouldn't the Democratic Party take public credit for that improvement? And doesn't this apply equally to cash aid passed by a Republican president and Senate in a time of crisis? Isn't this not only good politics, but also just making sure the basic mechanics of what democracy is supposed to accomplish actually function?

Claiming it's some sort of normative breach for an elected official to publicly and aggressively take credit for helping out voters is just the last refuge of someone who knows they've been politically outmaneuvered. America would be a happier, healthier, and more humane place if all politicians straightforwardly thought it was their job — and in their political self-interest — to do as much concrete good in peoples' lives as possible.

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