Monday, January 13, 2020


In The New York Times, David Leonhardt makes an argument to which I'm sympathetic, although he distorts the facts to make it. Leonhardt's point is that Franklin Roosevelt won public support for his policies by creating big, visible programs -- something Democrats have forgotten how to do, but Republicans haven't.

I agree with what Leonhardt says about FDR. I think he's somewhat off base regarding modern Democrats, and almost entirely off base when he talks about modern Republicans.

Leonhardt writes:
In January 1937, near the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term as president, Life magazine published a map of the United States spread over two full pages. The headline read: “What President Roosevelt Did to the Map of the U.S. in Four Years with $6,500,000,000.”

Scattered around the map were dozens of small drawings, each showing a project funded by Roosevelt’s stimulus program. They included the Triborough Bridge, Manhattan’s Midtown tunnels, bridges on Cape Cod, schools in South Carolina, dorms at Texas Tech, the Kansas City Civic Auditorium, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Grand Coulee Dam. A few of the drawings summarized broader projects, like “2 U.S. aircraft carriers” and “120 U.S. airports.”

Since taking office in 1933, Roosevelt hadn’t only rescued the country from the Great Depression. He had made sure that the country knew he had rescued it. His projects were big, tangible and unmistakably the work of the federal government. The projects changed how Americans thought about government.
Okay, sure. Fast-forward to today:
In recent decades, Democrats have too often forgotten this lesson. They have created technocratically elegant policies that quietly improve people’s lives, like tax credits or insurance subsidies. The problem with this approach is that it does little to build popular support for government action.
It's true that Barack Obama's stimulus program didn't come close to capturing the public imagination the way the New Deal did. But Obamacare? Really? Millions of people obtaining health insurance who previously couldn't -- Leonhardt thinks that's regarded as a bloodless, technocratic policy with no visceral appeal? I agree that the program is quite imperfect, and that many who receive subsidized private insurance aren't as enthusiastic as those quo qualify for expanded Medicaid. But America is now talking about universal health coverage as a necessary goal. That started with Obama, who got us close enough to universal coverage to make it seem attainable. Leonhardt shouldn't discount that.

As for Obama's stimulus, yes, too much of it was in the form of tax cuts and subsidies, but recall what happened when the Obama administration tried to make stimulus projects more visible:
July 14, 2010 -- As the midterm election season approaches, new road signs are popping up everywhere – millions of dollars worth of signs touting "The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act" and reminding passers-by that the program is "Putting America Back to Work."

On the road leading to Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC there's a 10' x 11' road sign touting a runway improvement project funded by the federal stimulus. The project cost nearly $15 million and has created 17 jobs, according to

However, there's another number that caught the eye of ABC News: $10,000. That's how much money the Washington Airports Authority tells ABC News it spent to make and install the sign – a single sign – announcing that the project is "Funded by The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act" and is "Putting America Back to Work." The money for the sign was taken out of the budget for the runway improvement project.

ABC News has reached out to a number of states about spending on stimulus signs and learned the state of Illinois has spent $650,000 on about 950 signs and Pennsylvania has spent $157,000 on 70 signs. Other states, like Virginia, Vermont, and Arizona do not sanction any signs.

... some Republicans are crying foul. Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to Earl Devaney, Chairman of the Recovery Act and Transparency and Accountability Board, requesting an investigation to "determine the scope and impact of the Obama administration's guidance" regarding signs to stimulus recipients.

Rep. Issa writes that the passage of the Stimulus Bill, "has provided an opportunity for the Obama administration to claim political credit for the various projects around the country that have been funded by this redistribution of taxpayer dollars."
Well, yes, that was the point -- to redistribute taxpayer dollars in order to keep people employed and prevent the economy from falling into depression. The Obama administration tried to showcase signs of tax dollars at work, but Republicans knew that they could minimize the popular appeal of those projects if they expressed enough fauxtrage about the signage. (Making and posting the signage also kept people working, of course.)

This is a mainstream news story. The response in the right-wing information sphere was a bit more heated:

The ABC story notes that subsequently disgraced congressman Aaron Schock attacked the Recovery Act logo on the sign as suspiciously reminiscent of Obama's 2008 campaign logo (because, I guess, they were both round, roundness apparently being a rare and peculiar aspect of logos). Schock's source for this claim was a mysterious constituent whose hobby, apparently, was opposition research.
Schock's office provided ABC News with administration guidance on stimulus signs sent to him from a constituent. The document, dated March of 2009, outlines the "General Guidelines for Emblem and Logo Applications." The Recovery Act logo which was provided not only looks oddly similar to the Obama logo from the 2008 campaign but its stated purpose, according to the document, is to act as "a symbol of President Obama's commitment to the American people to invest their tax dollars wisely and put Americans back to work."

It's impossible to tell them apart!

Leonhardt thinks Republicans are so much better at all this:
Republicans don’t suffer from this naïveté. Again and again, they push policies meant to affect politics, such as campaign-finance deregulation, voting restrictions and labor-union constraints. Republicans understand a concept that political scientists refer to as “policy feedback” — namely, that policy can influence politics in ways that make future policy changes more or less likely.
I think he's straining to prove his point. Campaign finance deregulation is wonky and technocratic, and therefore invisible to most voters. Voting restrictions are also invisible to the members of the GOP voter base, because they mostly affect other people. Labor union constraints are visible to active workers in unionized fields, but they affect those voters in a negative way. None of these examples prove Leonhardt's point.

What Republicans do that's highly visible is attack Democrats and presumed Democratic constituent groups: blacks, Hispanics, LGBT people, immigrants, environmentalists, college professors, Hollywood stars. Sometimes Republicans attack these groups with policy changes; other times, it's just rhetoric. Republican voters sometimes seem as if they don't care whether their lives are improved -- they just want their enemies' lives made worse.

Liberal tears are the GOP's Grand Coulee Dam. In that way, the GOP is much better at making the value of voting Republican clear. Democrats really do struggle to compete.

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