The stimulus taught candidates to be vague about how they'll create jobs.

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Aug. 18 2010 7:28 PM

The Folly of "Jobs Plans"

The stimulus taught candidates to be very, very vague about how they'll fix things.

John Boehner. Click image to expand.
John Boehner

The typical Republican candidate of 2010 spends most of his time on one of two pursuits. The first is deriding President Obama and the Democrats for promising to rescue the economy with stimulus packages and jobs plans. The second is rolling out his stimulus and jobs plans.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., for example, now the favorite to win Missouri's open U.S. Senate seat, has just wrapped up a "jobs tour" on a "jobs bus" with the release of a 21-page document titled "Jobs for Missouri: Roy Blunt's Jobs Plan." His campaign reminds reporters that the Democratic candidate, Robin Carnahan, has no jobs plan.

Yet neither candidate is doing what Democrats did in order to elect Obama and sell the 2009 economic stimulus package: getting specific with numbers. Want some idea of how many jobs might be generated if you vote for Blunt or Carnahan? Tough luck. It's out of their hands. As Blunt puts it in his plan, "Private sector job-creators are ready to invest in the kinds of job-creating activities we need to recover fully from this economic crisis and help millions of middle class families get back to work." Trust him, then trust them. Things will work themselves out.

There's nothing new about candidates offering sure-fire "jobs plans." By merely saying the phrase "jobs plan," a candidate signals that he is serious. This year, however, voters are simultaneously more desperate and more cynical about economic policy.

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First, the desperation: Unemployment was at 5.6 percent when Newt Gingrich first wrapped his hand around the speaker's gavel in 1995. It was 4.6 percent when Democrats took over the House in 2007. If Republicans win in November, "Speaker John Boehner" might be confronting unemployment of about 10 percent when he gets the gavel in January 2011.

Now, the cynicism: Democrats sold the stimulus in 2009 in part by offering predictions of how many jobs it would create. The stimulus would create (or save!) 4.1 million jobs. The unemployment rate would stay below 8 percent. What lesson did both parties learn from those sales pitches? Never try that again. Promising a lower unemployment rate, as the White House did in 2009 in selling the stimulus, "was a dumb thing to do," groused Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., on Tuesday.

Yet it's something that incumbents have to do with proposed legislation. They don't have to dig in and sell voters on the reliability of their predictions like Obama did. But if they introduce their plans in Congress, they have to watch as the Congressional Budget Office assesses whether their plans add up or create jobs. The economic models which Democrats used to sell their legislation, developed by the CBO and analysts like Mark Zandi of Economy.com, argued that unemployment benefits, payroll tax cuts, and expensing of investment costs would do more for the economy than other kinds of spending.

A persistent recession will take its toll on predictions like these. "Zandi's model, that simple multiplier effect, suggested that a targeted jobs credit would be effective," says Rea Hederman, who crunches numbers for the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis, the conservative think tank's answer to the CBO. "It wasn't effective."