Sweet Normalcy

Notice anything about the debate over the COVID relief package? It’s so normal. In fact, it’s almost boring and isn’t that wonderful?

I hasten to clarify that I’m referring here to the national effort, not what’s going on in the Wisconsin Legislature. Here, the Republicans in the Assembly and Senate have started to snipe at one another over just exactly how to go about short-circuiting Gov. Tony Evers’ sensible mask mandate and still get $49 million in federal food assistance for the poor. They loaded up the state COVID relief bill with enough poison pills to kill an elephant (and, if there is any justice, it will have the effect of beating some Republican legislators in 2022). They knew full well that Evers would have to veto it and so he did.

The state debate is the same old politics we’ve had in the era of Trump populism. The debate isn’t over substance but over culture war hot buttons. Science and sense tell us to wear masks in public. Nutty right-wing populism says that’s the beginning of socialism. And so, the insane discussion is joined. Let the screaming begin.

But at the national level the disagreement is over what we used to expect. The Democrats want to spend a lot of money and the Republicans want to spend less. Ahh. Don’t you love the sound of that?

The debate over the COVID relief bill is happening within the 40 yard lines of American politics.

Some substantial aid bill will certainly pass; it’s just a question of its size. And, frankly, anything between the $618 billion that 10 Republicans have proposed and Biden’s $1.9 trillion package will be just fine.

Democrats feel burned by 2009 when they reached out to Republicans and wound up with a bill they thought was too small. They blame that for a slow recovery from the Great Recession and their losses in the 2010 midterms.

I don’t buy that narrative at all. The party in power almost always loses seats in the midterm elections and the tea party revolt was fueled by Obamacare and the very size of the relief bill (about $800 billion) that the Dems now think was so puny. It felt like a lot of government coming at people even if it was mostly aimed at helping the very people who rebelled against it. Plus, there were a lot of simmering resentments related to free trade and immigration that were ready to explode. I’d say the size of the 2009 relief package had nothing at all to do with the rise of right-wing populism, except for the fact that tea partiers thought it was too big.

So, to the extent that Democrats are clinging to their $1.9 trillion as if that were some sort of edict brought to them on a stone tablet, well, they’re not being rational. It’s more likely that Democrats are just being old-fashioned Democrats. They like to spend money. They have an outsized view of all the problems government can solve — if the programs were only bigger.

Republicans, for their part, are tripping over their own hypocrisy. They rediscover deficits whenever Democrats are in power. When they’re running the show they run up the tab like (I have searched in vain here for a more creative analogy) drunken sailors.

Still, on balance, I think the Republicans have the stronger arguments. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the economy that 300 million shots won’t cure. The emphasis should be on getting shots in arms and providing people with short term emergency relief. Families earning over $100,000 don’t need $1,400 from the government. States don’t need to be bailed out. (And, the way the Wisconsin Legislature is acting, why should they be?)

And there is a real concern that the economy could be overheated. Keep in mind that the feds have already pumped over $2.7 trillion in COVID relief into the economy (an additional $1 trillion remains unspent, raising even more doubts about the need for the bigger new bill) and the national savings rate is higher than at any point since 1975, meaning there’s a lot of pent up consumer demand ready to be unleashed. The Congressional Budget Office predicts a strong 3.7% growth rate by the fourth quarter.

Here’s the really great thing that nobody seems to be noticing. We’re talking about facts and figures, building blocks that (get this!) everybody is pretty much agreeing on. Joe Biden isn’t denying that the government has already authorized over $3.7 trillion and Susan Collins isn’t saying that COVID is just like the flu. They’re just having a civil disagreement about how much is enough.

To use a football analogy on this Super Bowl weekend, this game is being played between the 40 yard lines and under rules the players pretty much agree on. For the last four years the teams haven’t even been in the same stadium.

Democrats want to spend more. Republicans want to spend less. It’s all so normal. Isn’t it nice?

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