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Pre-empting Debate on Economic Stimulus

by Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
November 12, 2001

In theory, members of Congress hash out their policy differences through debate on the floors of their respective chambers. In the current age of media politics, however, it can often seem that the debate is over before it begins. By the time our representatives actually stand and speak in the Capitol, their argument has largely played out in the context of articles with leads like "The Senate is gearing up for a nasty debate over..."

As political spin has become a science based on the principles of public relations, it has stripped many debates of rationality. Within just a few articles, spin can beget counter-spin and substantive policy arguments quickly devolve into irrational attacks and accusations of bad faith. These arguments are deployed strategically to undermine the position of one's opponents by casting doubt on their motivations and tactics.

A good example of this phenomenon can be seen in the growing debate over an economic stimulus package. As both houses of Congress prepare to debate the Republican measure and the Democratic alternative, Republicans have already attempted to spin the Democratic position as a politically motivated attempt to avoid stimulating the economy in order to prolong a recession. Democrats, meanwhile, are framing the Republicans as rewarding the wealthy and big corporations instead of attempting to help the economy to recover. It would be naïve, of course, to imagine that political calculations such as these don't play a role in each party's position. It is of great concern, however, that rational argument on how best to stimulate the economy appears unlikely as we move into floor debate.

Legitimate concerns

As the debate on these bills has begun in committees, there certainly has been opportunity for legitimate criticism from both sides of the aisle. Senate minority leader Trent Lott, for instance, expressed concerns in a New York Times article that Democrats had loaded their bill with too many wasteful government projects - a.k.a. pork. "I admit it: I like pork," he said. "But in a stimulus package? I don't see how spending money on watermelons and bison meat will help the economy."

Similarly, some Democrats have expressed concerns that GOP tax cuts that mainly benefit the affluent and large corporations will do little to stimulate the overall economy. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for instance, pointed out that many of the benefits of the Republican plan go to a few companies:

One piece of the bill is custom-designed to benefit a small group of multinational financial firms. Another is clearly there for the sake of certain health insurers. But the most remarkable thing is how much of the benefit from repeal of the alternative minimum tax - a measure that is also included in the Bush administration's supposed stimulus plan, and which seems to be one of the administration's key priorities - goes to companies that are not all that big.

This sort of rhetoric, while not necessarily free of deception or exaggeration, does address legitimate concerns over different approaches to fiscal policy. We need to discuss whether tax cuts or spending will best stimulate the economy, and we should expect our representatives to have that debate. Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric in the media has moved beyond such trivial concerns as how to get out of our recession.

Attacking motivations instead of policy

When Democrats make their argument that the Republican proposal is too tilted towards the wealthy, the emerging GOP response is not to defend the stimulative effect of tax cuts, but instead to argue that the Democrats are actually trying to delay action in order to prolong the downturn. The following excerpt from a Washington Times column by Donald Lambro, which was first picked up by my co-editor Bryan Keefer, demonstrates the tactic well:

"What's clear now is that the Democrats are dragging their feet on an economic recovery plan. They want to see Republicans suffer the blame of voters next November," a senior Senate Republican leadership official told me
The Democrats' stall-and-delay strategy is based on their politically self-absorbed belief that the longer the recession lasts, the better their chances of regaining control of Congress.

Of course it is possible that a desire to extend the recession lies behind some of the Democratic rhetoric. But Lambro assumes it as fact without any evidence beyond a statement from an anonymous Republican.

Democrats can point to their alternative stimulus plan as evidence that they are concerned about the economy, but the emerging Republican line has a retort to this as well. In a recent statement quoted in a Washington Times article, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, accused Senate Majority Leader Daschle of attempting to delay the Republican package, which he frames with loaded rhetoric: "Faced with the alternative--passing responsible and effective legislation to stimulate the economy--Senator Daschle seems to prefer to watch the clock run out."

This rhetoric attempts to cast doubt on sincere Democratic desires to revive the economy by assuming as a premise that the Democratic bill is offered insincerely as non-stimulative pork and projecting motivations on top of that. In truth, the argument is so irrational that the best tactical response is for Democrats to attempt to corner Republicans in the same way. And that, in fact, is what some of them have already been doing. A New York Times article outlined much of the emerging Democratic line on this issue:

Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, for instance, is quoted saying, "It's amazing how the Republicans go out of their way to prove they are the party of rich folks and corporations."

Two Democratic senators, meanwhile, added onto the attack by suggesting that the GOP plan represents "profiteering" and partisan interest.

"This is profiteering in the name of patriotism," Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said (see Bryan Keefer's post for more on the increasing use of "profiteering" rhetoric). Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, meanwhile, called on Republicans "to put national interests ahead of narrow partisans interests." And what is in the national interest, as opposed to the partisan interest, according to Senator Lieberman? The Democratic bill, of course.

Just like some Republicans, these Democrats are attempting to head off any substantive defense by Republicans of their strategy to revive the economy. When responses to the charge that they are only helping the rich are met with unprovable assertions about profiteering and being against the "national interest," Republicans have nowhere to take their argument. Indeed, they would be foolish to respond substantively when their response would simply give Democrats more opportunities to bash them with these lines.

More non-rational debate to come?

In the next few weeks, we'll see how the debate plays out. Regardless of whether Congress descends into a spin frenzy, however, those who value public debate should be concerned. Dismissals of substantive argument backed up by vague, indefensible accusations have the potential to pre-empt rational arguments. Let's hope substance prevails.

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Related links:
-Pundits insinuate Democrats want a recession (Bryan Keefer, 11/09)
-Pundits allege "war profiteering" (Bryan Keefer, 10/30)

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