The S-Word

Did you know that Race to the Top, the administration’s signature education reform that has been grudgingly praised by some Republicans, was part of the $800 billion stimulus package that passed in the first weeks of the Obama presidency?  Or that the stimulus included a transformative $27 billion investment in health IT, an investment that is helping to pull the sclerotic health industry into the digital age?

If you didn’t know that, and Michael Grunwald himself didn’t before he set out to report his book The New New Deal, it may be because the Obama administration (and now the re-election campaign) seem to believe that when it comes to the American Recovery Act, the best position to adopt is “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Never heard of it.
In a Monday Delve event at New America (watch video below), Grunwald, a Time staff writer,  was pressed by Assistant Editor Elizabeth Weingarten on why what he’s concluded was a resounding success should be a source of political shame and ridicule.  Republicans deride the stimulus bill passed by Congress, with nary a Democratic retort.  Why the disconnect?

There are a number of somewhat competing, somewhat complementary, explanations.  First, credit the unity of Republican opposition.  Although a handful of moderate Republican senators were crucial to passing the measure in the Senate, the GOP did not offer up a single vote in the House of Representatives, denying the Keynesian spending the good housekeeping seal of bipartisanship.  As Grunwald noted, “for people with real lives” who don’t follow politics obsessively, things passed in Congress by a single party are inherently dodgy.  And the stimulus was passed in a blur, on the eve of the even less popular (but ultimately very successful) bailout of the nation’s financial sector.  Even people in the Congress conflate the two in retrospect.
Grunwald also pointed out that for all the idealism of the 2008 Obama campaign, the Obama transition team and his economic team once in the White House was a fully Clintonian operation, led by battle-hardened 1990s officials who knew how quickly post-election honeymoons can vanish and how corrosive a united opposition can prove.  Hence the rush (well, there was also the pressure of a looming depression) to stuff the stimulus bill with every possible investment off the Democratic wish list.  Because there may not be another chance.
Beyond the politics, Grunwald is impressed with the substance of the stimulus, investments he feel will reap dividends for decades to come.   He reports that the level of waste and fraud, contrary to Republican charges and all those Solyndra headlines, was far lower than anyone could expect, though he added that the book contains one instance of improper interference by Valerie Jarrett on behalf of one investment in the energy sector.