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Tilting at Windmills

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February 17, 2010

A WEAK DEFENSE.... Democrats are pushing the stimulus hypocrisy line pretty hard this week -- Republicans say they hate the stimulus, but that hasn't stopped them from trying to secure recovery funds for their states/districts. Republicans, perhaps worried about the effectiveness of the criticism, have embraced a straightforward response.

Conservative economist Greg Mankiw summarized the GOP argument, calling the Democratic cries of hypocrisy "baffling." (thanks to reader C.L. for the tip)

It seems perfectly reasonable to believe (1) that increasing government spending is not the best way to promote economic growth in a depressed economy, and (2) that if the government is going to spend gobs of money, those on whom it is spent will benefit. In this case, the right thing for a congressman to do is to oppose the spending plans, but once the spending is inevitable, to try to ensure that the constituents he represents get their share. So what exactly is the problem?

Let me offer an analogy. Many Democratic congressmen opposed the Bush tax cuts. That was based, I presume, on their honest assessment of the policy. But once these tax cuts were passed, I bet these congressmen paid lower taxes. I bet they did not offer to hand the Treasury the extra taxes they would have owed at the previous tax rates. Would it make sense for the GOP to suggest that these Democrats were disingenuous or hypocritical? I don't think so. Many times, we as individuals benefit from policies we opposed. There is nothing wrong about that.

This is no doubt the official Republican line. Indeed, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) made the identical argument, with the exact same analogy, on "Meet the Press" over the weekend.

But the response is deeply flawed. The hypocrisy charge may sting, but it's also entirely legitimate.

It's not complicated -- Republicans have claimed, forcefully and repeatedly, that the stimulus effort was a mistake. The recovery spending couldn't generate economic growth and was simply incapable of creating jobs. The entire endeavor, the GOP said, was a wasteful boondoggle, and they're proud to have voted against it. Republicans rejected the very idea on ideological and policy grounds.

Now, we know the substance of these claims is demonstrably ridiculous, but the key to the hypocrisy charge is appreciating what else these same Republicans have said. When it comes to their states/districts/constituents, the identical GOP lawmakers have said the stimulus can generate economic growth, can create jobs, and can make an important and positive difference. In some cases, Republicans have even taken credit for stimulus projects they opposed -- projects that wouldn't even exist if they had their way.

GOP officials can take one position or the other, but when they embrace one side in D.C. while talking to the media, and then the opposite side when dealing with their constituents, it's more than just stupid -- it's hypocrisy.

As for Mankiw's analogy to the Bush tax cuts, this also doesn't stand up well to scrutiny. The only way this would make sense is if Democrats opposed and voted against Bush's policy in D.C., and then went back to their states/districts to take credit for the tax cuts and boast about how effective they were.

The fact that the hypocrisy charge seems to make Republicans nervous is itself encouraging. That the GOP has not yet come up with a coherent response should encourage Dems to keep it up.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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Comments

They don't care about reality, veracity, solvency...so they certainly won't be bothered by "hypocrisy."

Posted by: Cazart on February 17, 2010 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

They don't care about hypocrisy in the moral sense, no. But they do care about how it could possibly hurt their electoral chances.

Posted by: Shade Tail on February 17, 2010 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

"The stimulus program is a wasteful mistake, except for projects that taking place in my district." [/ 'Thuglican Congresstwit.

Posted by: bo on February 17, 2010 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Mankiw is simply writing from another planet, Mankiw Prime, where the republicans did say that stimulus spending was not the best way to promote growth and create jobs. I wish him luck on Mankiw Prime, where his political cohorts are not a bunch of vitriolic crazy liars. But on planet Earth his writings can be pretty much disregarded as irrelevant.

Posted by: paul on February 17, 2010 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

I have been making this point ever since Maddow very politely ripped Schock a new one over this issue. Democrats didn't take credit for the tax cuts that they voted against, while repiglicans extol the job creating benefits of the bill while simultaneously insisting that the bill doesn't create any jobs and is a big waste of money. BTW, Bayh didn't do the dems any favors by toeing the repiglican line that "If I created 1 job in the private sector that is 1 more than congress created in the last 6 months." That's a democrat to be proud of...

Posted by: beyond left on February 17, 2010 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

As I pointed out yesterday, in at least some cases, this arguement is, how to say politely to prof. Mankiw --- demonstrable bullshit.

According to the Wa Times article, letters from key senators went to various secretaries BEFORE FINAL PASSAGE of the bill had occurred. Now one can argue that this moot - really, the money was going to be there, [the "I'll get the gobs of money laying there" idea] but for people who wrote letters before Feb 13, 2009, there is pure hypocrisy - they were begging for money in their district - again, something elected reps, do, and I don't really begrudge them that, WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY publically denouncing the bill.

If some is against something, fine. You try to influence the outcome. But to go after the money, and rail against it, before passage, is just blatant hypocrisy.

Posted by: bigutah on February 17, 2010 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

The Bush Tax Cuts helped create the huge deficit.
The Stimulus helped create Jobs.

Repeal the Bush Tax Cuts for the Rich.
Audit the pentagon.

Posted by: Mr.P on February 17, 2010 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Watch out for Mankiw's #1. His claim is that spending is "not the best way" - which is not the same as "couldn't generate economic growth". If you allow them to re-write their rhetoric you can lose the argument.

Posted by: careful on February 17, 2010 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans have an advantage over Democrats, they want to win for winings sake. They will do anything to get back in power, lie about economic policy, take credit for bills they voted for, politicize national security, vote against bills they sponsor as soon as Democrats get on board, call the President names and distort his intentions etc, the political games are endless. It's all done without concern about how distorting the truth poisons are public discourse at home and discourages investments from abroad.

Posted by: Tylaw on February 17, 2010 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

They've long ago amputated themselves from the concept of honesty. "Truth" is defined as the end result. They're aided and abetted by a partnered media. There's no arguing with or debating them. Every issue is a Hydra with multiple agendas their own desired outcomes.

It like a chronic liar who begins to believe their own lies. They've entered an alternate reality where whatever they say or do at any given moment is true.

Posted by: SaintZak on February 17, 2010 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

I've benefited from tax cuts that I opposed. I never sent a press release about it, though.

Posted by: danimal on February 17, 2010 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think sleeping with Meghan McCain is a good idea for anybody, and it probably won't be any fun. Now, I'm going to sleep with her, because she wants me, and then I'll brag about it, privately, to my friends. But if anyone asks? You tell them No, I will not ever sleep with Megan McCain, and only a fool would.

Posted by: slappy magoo on February 17, 2010 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

That's not even an argument against hypocrisy. It's a 'they did it too' dodge, and a weak one at that.

Posted by: doubtful on February 17, 2010 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

slappy...loved that analogy! It makes more sense than Mankiw's too...only I don't think it's going to be kept private anymore....

Posted by: whichwitch on February 17, 2010 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

We gave back our tax cuts in the form of the economy that Bush trashed.

Posted by: Brian Morton on February 17, 2010 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

What the Republicans can't avoid in their effort to escape the hypocracy charge is the fact that the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times have called them out on it.

Posted by: JackD on February 17, 2010 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

(1) that increasing government spending is not the best way to promote economic growth in a depressed economy, and (2) that if the government is going to spend gobs of money, those on whom it is spent will benefit.

Wait. It benefits *people* but not the economy? Spoken like a true economist.

Posted by: Christopher on February 17, 2010 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

I was going to leave a comment at Mankiw's blog, but (like so many chicken-squawk right-wing bloggers, and unlike WaMo, Brad DeLong etc.) he doesn't AFAICT. In any case, it is not reasonable to expect people to turn down tax cuts etc. unless you think it is literally immoral to do so instead of simply not the best policy. (Like using English if you think the metric system is better.) Also, like many here say: it's about how you talk about it to differing constituencies and the use of it as a politician, not what you do about you own *personal* situation.

Posted by: neil b on February 17, 2010 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

Steve - Thanks for the post. I agree with your analysis, with one exception. Yes, the hypocrisy charge is a good one, but I don't think it's necessarily the best way, in this case, for dems to frame the stimulus debate. Sure, hypocrisy charges can be effective, especially when distrust of Congress is at an all time high, but if I was a Republican, I wouldn't mind occasionally being called a hypocrite as long as I can continue to say that the stimulus didn't work while still being seen back home fighting for my district.

Why is that? First, being able to say the stimulus hasn't worked allows me to make a much broader argument about/indictment of the Obama administration (profligate spending because of big government ideology). This is not to mention, that it allows me to dismiss what is probably, to date, the only signal achievement of this Congress/Administration that Democrats could possibly campaign on in 2010. Are they going to campaign on bailouts for Wall Street? Sending more troops to Afghanistan? Second, if I'm a Republican member, I'm willing to bet that my constituents aren't likely to care as much about or listen to charges of hypocrisy, because at the end of the day, I'm still seen as fighting for my district. The hypocrisy charge would be much worse if I said I was fighting for every dollar and cent for my district, but then not really doing a damn thing back in DC to help my district). THAT would be damaging, but in this case, that's not what constituents of Republicans see. They see Republicans who voted against a bill that they thought was wrong, but ended up getting passed anyways, now fighting to make sure that that bill still benefits their district. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Isn't that what you'd want as a constituent in that district? Now obviously, that's not objectively what happened but that's what constituents see.

The much more effective charge in this case - is not that Republicans are being hypocritical - its that they aren't telling the truth/can't be trusted. First, this allows dems to rebut the charge that the stimulus isn't working, which the hypocrisy charge only tangentially touches on. Second, it puts Republicans in a position where they can't as easily hide from their own inconsistencies (the stimulus is a boondoggle nationally; it isn't working out there - it just happens to work in my district). Every time a Republican member shows up at an event back home to trumpet stimulus funding, this ought to lead democrats to say that so and so member can't be trusted, that he/she isn't being honest with the public; the very fact that so and so R is there to happily endorse the opening of a new highway project, a new desalinization plant, etc, shows that it is. Instead of saying that, we're just calling Republican's hypocrites. That's not altogether a bad thing, but it doesn't answer the question of whether or not the stimulus is actually working. Sure, Republicans will still say that it's the majority of the bill that's not working and not the stuff in their districts, but we're on much stronger ground this way. Dems want people across the country to look at all those projects back home that their members are touting as evidence that stimulus package as a whole is working. Saying Republicans are being hypocritical doesn't do that as effectively as it should.

Posted by: lbj on February 17, 2010 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

I'd add a second major difference vis-a-vis the tax cuts is that you don't "apply" for tax cuts. These numbskulls have to go out of their way to get at the money that they said was a horrible idea. It's more akin to someone like Mark Foley.

Posted by: Mike Lamb on February 17, 2010 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

Is an NCAA basketball coach who was adamant against institutionalizing the three-point arc a hypocrite for allowing his team to shoot three-point shots following its adoption? Hmm, hard to follow the illogical fallacy ... May I suggest, we call any coach that failed to adapt to the new paradigm short-lived.

Posted by: m on February 17, 2010 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks m. You said it much more succinctly than I.

Posted by: lbj on February 17, 2010 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

A few commenters are missing the point - If they were honest in their opposition to the stimulus, Republicans could have accepted the money without showing up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and touting the money as "necessary" with giant goofy smiles on their faces.

Posted by: Ohioan on February 17, 2010 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

When it comes to their states/districts/constituents, the identical GOP lawmakers have said the stimulus can generate economic growth, can create jobs, and can make an important and positive difference.

Then one way to publicly demonstrate the hypocrisy and denounce these GOP lawmakers is to ask them whenever they go out and begin touting the benefits of the stimulus package is to ask point blank: "Senator, that's all well and good but did you or did you not vote for the ARRA or aka the stimulus bill?" or "Senator, aren't you one of the lawmakers who warned against the catastrophic consequences of passing the stimulus bill? Since you were clearly wrong then, aren't you just as wrong now about your opposition to health care reform or to the jogs bill? If the health care reform becomes law and benefits the public, would you again turn around and try to take credit by touting how it's helped your constituents? Don't you ever feel shame, Senator?"

Posted by: dcshungu on February 17, 2010 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

Mankiw is right. The way to hit the Republicans is not for being hypocrites its being bad at economics. But that requires more balls to pull off so the Democrats can't do it.

Posted by: The Fool on February 17, 2010 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with lbj. People aren't going to vote Democratic because the Democrats scored good debating points. They will vote Democratic because they believe that the Democrats are working to improve their lives, and/or the Republicans are working to make things worse. If the public isn't convinced that the stimulus plan saved our collective butts, then they aren't going to vote Democratic, and Republican hypocrisy isn't going to persuade them.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on February 17, 2010 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

I don't remember any Democrats saying that tax cuts would lead to the end of our republic and way of life. Republicans took a "moral" stand against the stimulus and said it was against their core convictions. They weren't just against it because they thought it was a mildly misguided policy. They made it seem like it was life or death, which is how the teabaggers seem to feel.

Posted by: map on February 17, 2010 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

It also seems perfectly reasonable to believe that the Earth is flat. I mean, if you totally ignore all the evidence that it isn't.

Posted by: kc on February 17, 2010 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

Most economists recognize the positive effects from government stimulus, including this stimulus. Most economists also understand there is ALWAYS a swap set. Let me repeat. There is ALWAYS a swap set. To date, it appears the swap set (total negatives) may exceed the total positives.

The key is consumer confidence -- the multiplier. The reason the stimulus has not had the desired impact (unemployment peak of 8%) is largely due to the lack of confidence in the economy, government, business, etc.

Consumers (including business consumers) with means are hoarding acorns.

Posted by: m on February 17, 2010 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

Is an NCAA basketball coach who was adamant against institutionalizing the three-point arc a hypocrite for allowing his team to shoot three-point shots following its adoption? Hmm, hard to follow the illogical fallacy ...

It's not that hard if you're not willfully ignoring the actual issue of hypocrisy. Does your hypothetical coach take credit for having institutionalized the three-point arc while simultaneously railing against it? No? Get it now?

Posted by: Allen on February 17, 2010 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Allen -- fair enough. Maybe I'm wrong. I'm not personally aware of any GOP and few Dem congressman "taking credit" for passing stimulus.

Posted by: m on February 17, 2010 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

There's another point that I haven't seen made. Democrats opposed Bush tax cuts on the grounds that they would run the budget from surplus to deficit, that they would not stimulate the economy, and that they were skewed to benefit those whose incomes were in the top 1%. All of those things were true and have been borne out by the data and events of the last eight years. Because politicians tend to have high incomes they did benefit from the tax cuts.

The GOP opposed the stimulus contending that the projects listed in that bill would not create jobs. They didn't merely contend that tax cuts would be more stimulative, they contended (and still contend) that the spending would not create jobs. When they sought the funding and took credit for the funding they stated (in writing) that it was their opinion that the projects would create jobs. They told their base one thing but stated in writing that they agreed with the Democrats. They consider their base to be a bunch of suckers.

Posted by: rk on February 17, 2010 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

To finish the thought above properly. Democrats opposed the Bush tax cuts for specific reasons. Those reasons have been borne out by events and nothing that Democrats have done would make one believe they ever thought otherwise. The GOP opposed the stimulus package for specific reasons that they declared privately to be bogus. Moreover the GOP has been shown to be wrong (yet again).

Posted by: rk on February 17, 2010 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

(1) ...that increasing government spending is not the best way to promote economic growth in a depressed economy, ...


and his source for this conclusion is....?

Oh, right. The nitwits that punted the economy in the crapper in the first place.

So when we wise up and implement the spending freeze, then all these rocket scientists will be insisting that their states be the first to get their federal aid cut.

Just making sure I have their plan clear in my throbbing, aching head.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on February 17, 2010 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Allen -- fair enough. Maybe I'm wrong. I'm not personally aware of any GOP and few Dem congressman "taking credit" for passing stimulus.

Not for passing it, but for its result. Surely you haven't missed the scores of photos of Republicans smiling away at stimulus worksites, holding up giant checks for stimulus-funded projects, etc.? Or the many Republican-issued, chest-beating press releases lauding stimulus projects? All of that is, after all, what started this whole public charge of hypocrisy and began attracting some media attention beginning a few weeks ago. But maybe you've just come into this conversation today.

Posted by: Allen on February 17, 2010 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Theses are great points, well presented.
Think we can get lbj, Mike Lamb, Ohioan, dcshungu, The Fool, rk, and Allen to replace Tim Kaine at the DNC?

Posted by: smartalek on February 17, 2010 at 6:30 PM | PERMALINK

Dems are failing to make their message clear and, thus, are not getting the most benefit from this line of attack. The message needs to be: "Republicans voted against and said it would not create jobs; that it was a waste. But at home, they admit the truth - that is does create jobs. They even go so far as to try to take credit for the money at home." The first part of the argument is what needs to be hammered home. Then you stick in the second part to polish them off. Dems, unfortunately, are muddling the message by letting the second part of the arg overshadow the first.

Posted by: Nick on February 18, 2010 at 2:32 AM | PERMALINK

"That the GOP has not yet come up with a coherent response should encourage Dems to keep it up."

Hey, Frank Luntz has got a lot on his plate these days. Democrats need to come up with an anti-Luntz.

Posted by: bob h on February 18, 2010 at 6:33 AM | PERMALINK

I think the important point to make is not that the Republicans are hypocrites but that they are wrong. They voted against the stimulus because they argued it was wasteful and wouldn't save or create jobs. They persisted in their belief that the only way for government to create jobs is to cut taxes. Now, however, they are arguing that the stimulus is creating jobs and they want to see some of those jobs created in their districts/states. That may be hypocritical but the more compelling point is that it is further proof that they were just plain wrong.

Posted by: dpbummer on February 18, 2010 at 7:12 AM | PERMALINK
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