By Sam Stein
With help from Myah Ward and Joanne Kenen
HARD SELL — On the doorstep of signing a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill into law, Joe Biden is already planning how to sell it to the public.
But what if it can’t be sold?
Such a possibility may seem heretical to Democrats, considering how popular the bill currently is and how exuberant the party is over its likely passage — including declarations from the White House that it’s the most progressive piece of legislation ever passed. Yet history suggests there may be limited political reward for it.
That was the conclusion of a trio of political scientists after examining the electoral ripples of the Obama stimulus seven years after it passed. Katherine Levine Einstein of Boston University, Kris‐Stella Trump of the University of Memphis and Vanessa Williamson of Brookings looked at the political fallout of that bill and concluded that it was, in fact, “null” — overwhelmed by the massive tides of party polarization.
Democratic voters were likely to reward their party’s politicians for passing the Obama stimulus, but Republican voters tended to punish them for the increased spending. All told, a county had to be 65 percent Democratic for the Recovery Act to have shown “a statistically significant positive impact on change in Democratic vote share.” For some House Democrats in swing districts, the bill may have actually had a negative impact.
“This finding suggests that highly politicized spending can actually be counterproductive for an incumbent Democrat,” the study read. “Rather than being ‘unresponsive,’ conservative counties punished Democrats for the spending they received from the stimulus.”
Biden’s bill is fundamentally different from Obama’s, and the lessons Democrats took from the ‘09 stimulus are a large part of the reason for that. While the Recovery Act included a swath of tax cuts, investments in infrastructure and green energy, along with small business loans and the like, Biden’s Covid relief bill was designed with simplicity in mind. It would spend money on schools, states and the pandemic fight. It would then spend money on the unemployed, pensions and children. It would then spend money on the average American in the form of a $1,400 check.
Showering voters with cash, the theory holds, is so simple and so tangible that political benefits will naturally flow from it.