In what Politico describes as part of a “broader Democratic effort to conduct oversight over the Trump administration amid the pandemic,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced this week that he wanted to make it illegal for the president to be any better at politics than the Democrats are.
In a Sunday statement, Schumer introduced the “No PR Act,” which (per Politico) “would prohibit the use of federal dollars toward any material that promotes the names or signatures of Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.”
The measure is an attempt to prevent President Trump from doing things like ordering the Treasury Department to put his name on each check mailed to Americans as part of last month’s economic aid package. (The president had wanted to sign the checks himself, but current law made that impossible, and he settled for attaching his signature to letters mailed to people informing them that their aid money had been direct deposited.)
Various Democrats and their allies in the press found this shocking, bordering on scandalous. As Schumer’s statement puts it: “The No PR Act puts an end to the president’s exploitation of taxpayer money for promotional material that only benefits his re-election campaign.”
The law would, in effect, force the president to operate under the same constraints that Democrats impose on themselves. As last year came to an end, I recalled the story of Barack Obama’s invisible tax cut. Early in his first term, Democrats passed one of the broadest tax cuts in years, cutting payroll taxes for the overwhelming majority of working Americans. They also intentionally kept this a secret, because the administration’s economists told them that would be better—savvier—than simply cutting everyone a check, as George W. Bush had already done a few years earlier.
The end result was that most people who received a tax cut didn’t know they had received one and didn’t credit Barack Obama and the Democratic Party for giving it to them. In October 2010, The New York Times reported that “fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans.” This was, strictly from an economic policy perspective, an overwhelming success. And we all remember how much that success was rewarded the following month, when the Democrats were handed a crushing defeat in the 2010 midterms.
That brings us to Senator Schumer’s proposal. Its underlying logic seems to be that since it’s not fair that Republicans get to ignore the terrible advice of behavioral economists, the very act of taking credit for good things should be outlawed.
Democrats like Schumer believe that attempting to make political hay out of doing something that benefits a lot of people is a form of cheating. It’s a violation of the unwritten rules of the game to do beneficial and popular things and then attach your name to those things. But politicians only come to see this as “playing dirty” if they spend a lot of time explaining why they can’t do things their base actually wants.
When politicians pass bills that build bridges, they make sure their names are on those bridges. (It’s unclear whether Schumer’s bill would ban this practice—if it would, he’ll find himself yet again at odds with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.) It only makes sense to penalize this behavior if you are fundamentally uncomfortable with trying to win elections by giving tangible things to your constituents. Doing things people like and taking credit for it isn’t a cheat code; it used to be called politics.
Donald Trump signed the stimulus bill. His administration mailed the checks. He has every right to attach his name to them. If Democrats object, they can either follow the Republican playbook of sabotaging attempts at economic aid because it would be politically expedient, or they can try to make the case that they’d give the people even more.