The Missing Stimulus
Why isn’t anyone in Charlotte talking about one of Obama’s biggest accomplishments?
Obama should be bragging about his stimulus, but he isn't. Why not?
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
CHARLOTTE—The low point of the Democratic convention—the worst moment until today’s surprise spat over platform language—came when ABC News caught Stephen J. Spinner on tape. The network’s investigative team, which exposes and ambushes big donors at conventions, saw Spinner taking a VIP tour of the Time Warner Center. Spinner, a donor-turned-Department of Energy hack, had urged the Obama administration to give a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, even though he’d signed a waiver and promised not to get involved. ABC News found him. Spinner trotted away as a pleasant-seeming party goon blocked the camera. And as Politico noticed, Steve Westly, another Democrat bearing the Mark of Solyndra, will speak tonight to the DNC—“undoubtedly something Democrats will get hit for by Republicans.”
Wouldn’t it be easier for everybody if the Solyndrans were banished to an island? Yes. One of the goals of any convention is to obscure and magic away a party’s mistakes. At the Republicans’ convention, there was only a little cringing talk about George W. Bush. In Charlotte there is no mention of the word “stimulus,” and very little talk about the $787 billion package that Democrats worked like pack mules to get over the 60-vote Senate margin. Not even the tables of homespun Obama knick-knackery on College and Tryon streets mention the stimulus. One T-shirt lists the president’s accomplishments on the back: “CHANGE IS …” and skips from “1/29/2009: Equal Pay for Equal Work” to “3/30/2009: Saving the U.S. Auto Industry.”
When the stimulus passed, in February 2009, no Democrat thought that it’d be forgotten. No Democratic president had spent so much in one go since FDR. Its $145 billion “Making Work Pay” tax cut was part of Obama’s 2008 campaign platform, and generally, presidents like to brag when they enact something they burned jet fuel to talk about. The money that states received to plug budget gaps became really obvious once it stopped coming. If you stop a Democrat in the street and ask him what the stimulus did for his state—and you don’t mention Solyndra or something—he will praise it.
“It kept this whole country out of a deep depression,” says Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, as he steps out of a lecture-heavy Democratic Governors Association event about setting the private sector free. (The gist: We need to invest in education, and cut taxes.) “In Kentucky it helped us keep our heads above water and created enough jobs to get us through the worst part of the downtown. We wouldn’t have made it without the stimulus package.”
Nobody uses the S-word until they’re prompted—after that, they use it freely. “I talk about the stimulus all the time in my district,” says Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents Louisville. “I referred to it last night,” says Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who gave one of Tuesday’s best-received speeches. “I don’t usually spend time on the name of the act. But the fact that we have, for example, created some new tools that enabled the Orchard Garden school to turn itself around, was due to Race to the Top, which as you know was part of the stimulus. There are nearly 100,000 people at home in Massachusetts who can trace a paycheck to the stimulus bill. Roads, infrastructure—it’s incredibly important.”
This isn’t a new story, but it comes into relief at a three-day convention. This is the last chance Democrats will get to give an unvarnished, cable-TV-swallowed argument for the early Obama years. They’re using it, generally, to strip the bark off Mitt Romney and to remind their best demographic groups why they need another term.
Why not talk about the stimulus, though? It’s a toxic word. There is no way to clean it up. In The New New Deal, his very boosterish history of the stimulus, Michael Grunwald gets victorious Republicans to explain how they pulled that off. It was obvious even at the time. They talked up the lamest-sounding parts of the bill—“hybrid vehicles for the military”—to portray it as a tottering heap of wasteful junk. “We were in full kill-the-bill, let’s-make-everything-famous mode,” Republican adviser Derek Kan tells Grunwald. “The idea was to create an echo chamber about the wastefulness.” Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2-1 in TV segments about the stimulus, at a time when their influence in Washington was limited to getting Olympia Snowe to mount a filibuster.
“You can’t un-ring that bell,” says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, one of the convention’s omnipresent pundits. “There are a few things that Democrats didn’t take the time to explain in the early days of this presidency.” Trippi preceded to free-verse a few lines of an ideal Obama speech, in which he could have better explained how doomed the country would be unless it got real Keynesian real fast. This is more common around the convention floors than any talk of “stimulus.”
But it doesn’t matter. Solyndra is more famous as “stimulus” than any effective component of the law. Democrats lost the spin wars, and made peace with it. I mention to former Rep. Tom Perriello (he’s now at the Center for American Progress) that some voters confused the stimulus with TARP. He laughs.
Yarmuth, who’s waiting for a radio interview, offers another theory.
“In September 2008, the American people already thought Barack Obama was president.”
“That would explain why Paul Ryan blames him for shutting the Janesville GM plant down,” says Perriello.
“TARP became part of [Obama’s] agenda.” He can sell plenty of things at his convention. But some of his agenda’s been forced on him. And some of it’s been erased.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.