As Congress rushed to pass a $2.2 trillion stimulus package last week, many in the press could only marvel. Not only was the size of the bill itself unprecedented—dwarfing 2009’s $831 billion stimulus to combat the Great Recession—the level of cooperation was, as well. Prone to endless laments of the lack of comity in Congress, the D.C. press corps applauded the display of unity in Washington. This “kind of bipartisan agreement for any actual legislation, let alone something this massive and complicated, is unprecedented in modern Senate history,” wrote The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips after the Senate voted 96–0 to approve the bill, which emerged, in The New York Times’ Carl Hulse’s words, “despite a toxic dynamic between the two parties.”
But the most remarkable aspect of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was the consensus on government spending on display. The subject line of Thursday’s Politico’s Playbook PM newsletter: “Congress learns to love spending again.” Its authors noted that $2 trillion may, “in retrospect, look like a drop in the bucket for a Washington that’s suddenly eager to approve gobs of new spending.” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker wondered how the Republican Party, which had spent the Obama years railing about the need to trim the deficit and the debt, had come to embrace big spending. Trump, one White House aide told Rucker, “doesn’t give a [expletive]” about the national debt. “It’s all about the markets and the economy for him. It’s all about the jobs numbers.”
The Sunday shows featured only a couple of passing references to the deficit and the debt. Maybe, as Richard Nixon supposedly told Milton Friedman in 1971, we really are all Keynesians now—the media, at the very least, seems to think so.
But to imagine that there is a new bipartisan consensus on spending is remarkably naïve. A look back at coverage of the Obama stimulus—which, it should be noted, followed eight years of tax cuts and trillions of dollars in wartime spending under George W. Bush—showcases how Republicans respond to big spending under Democratic presidents. It also points to how a GOP Congress will respond to spending requests under a hypothetical Democratic presidency in 2021. If the mainstream media is smart, it will by then have learned the lessons of the 2020 stimulus. But it isn’t, so it probably won’t.
Media coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 revolved around its impact on the deficit, and on the Obama administration’s struggle to “sell” the need for more spending to the public in the face of widespread Republican opposition. CNN’s Jessica Yellin noted in February 2009 that the president was on a publicity blitz, “to sell stimulus and to answer charges that it’s just a whole lotta’ pork.” This was the narrative repeated again and again on television and in newspapers: The president was pushing a stimulus package he believed was necessary to jump-start the economy; Republicans thought it was wasteful and extravagant.
Cable news, in particular, was fixated on partisan squabbles over the deficit. A Pew Research study published later that year found that cable was significantly more likely than other sources of news to cover the political response to the recession and far less likely to cover its impact on people. The fight over the stimulus was portrayed as one being waged in the trenches of public opinion, with the president making his case and Republicans making theirs.
Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly summed up the Republican narrative on his show in early February 2009. While acknowledging that a stimulus can be useful and necessary, he insisted he was opposed to this particular stimulus. Obama had allowed “Nancy Pelosi and her far-left crew to hijack the situation.… The majority of Americans are now opposed to spending a trillion dollars on social engineering and other liberal causes.” Emphasizing the pork in the bill, Republican senators went on their own publicity blitz, with Mitch McConnell decrying “$150 million in honeybee insurance” as “nonsense” on Face the Nation. (It was actually a disaster relief insurance program for all livestock producers.)
As obviously silly and unprincipled as these objections were, they were nevertheless treated as sincere. Republicans really did want to trim spending and government waste, for the good of the country. It was only later that it was revealed that McConnell’s strategy was actually to undermine Obama at every turn, with unified and total Republican opposition, whatever it might cost voters. The difference between the GOP’s approach in 2009 and the Democrats’ approach in 2020 says everything you need to know about the two parties.
The Obama administration’s failure to reach Republicans, moreover, was treated as a failing on the president’s part. In an end-of-term retrospective in 2016, Politico’s Michael Grunwald acknowledged that, on substance, Obama was onto something. “The stimulus and Obamacare were unpopular and dubiously messaged, but they were transformative achievements, and they didn’t prevent the president from getting comfortably reelected.” That caveat, however, is a very small piece of a very long article about Obama’s failures in the superficial part of politics—in “messaging” his accomplishments and selling them to voters.
Obama’s stimulus was also the impetus for the creation of the Tea Party, which began in February 2009, when CNBC’s Rick Santelli railed against an alleged tilt toward socialism, from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. The rise of the Tea Party led to thousands of articles about the growing concern on the right about the size of the government. While subsequent research from Theda Skocpol put immigration, not the deficit, at the center of the Tea Party’s motivations, mainstream outlets took the GOP’s anti-deficit talk at face value.
The stimulus package passed last week is, in this light, seen as a departure from orthodoxy and the dawn of a new era of economic thinking on the right. For Politico’s Melanie Zanona and Marianne Levine, it was the culmination of a larger trend, which included both Trump’s economic approach and 2017’s corporate tax cut: “The GOP’s early embrace of a pricey stimulus package caps a transformation of the party that has been three years in the making.” The Associated Press’s Steve Peoples observed that “the Republican-aligned fiscal conservative movement had dramatically diminished under Trump, who has pushed the nation’s budget deficit to heights not seen in nearly a decade.”
But this wasn’t an evolution or a diminishment; it was the continuation of a long-standing trend. Republicans have always been free spenders when they’re in power. Concern-trolling about the size of the deficit rises only when Democrats are in charge. The press, dependent on a both-sides approach that prevents it from actually seeing what’s in front of its nose, falls for the same song and dance again and again. What viewers and readers are left with is a narrative that has nothing to do with the reality of a nihilistic GOP that has no economic principles and would happily crash an economy if it meant sabotaging Democrats.
It’s easy to imagine a situation in which Trump’s Democratic successor would oversee a similar economic collapse—and $1 trillion, let alone $2 trillion, in stimulus, would likely be unthinkable, as it was for the Obama administration. Republicans would take to the cable networks to inveigh against the wastefulness of the Democrats, who were mortgaging their kids’ future to bail out solar energy companies and bee farms. It will be up to the media to see, at long last, these bad-faith arguments for what they are.