Democrats: Do something about layoffs

Why are they afraid to act on the thing that's hurting them most?

Published June 14, 2010 2:15PM (EDT)

I have to agree with Steve Benen about the politics of spending federal money to prevent state and local government layoffs:

I don't mean for that to sound snarky; I mean it quite literally. If Dems pass the spending measures the president is pushing, they'll be saving thousands of jobs and prevent broader economic hardship during a fragile recovery. These lawmakers can go back to their home districts and arrange nice photo-ops in front of schools with teachers who would have been laid off, and police stations with officers who would be out of a job were it not for their "aye" vote in Congress for more spending.

In what universe do Democrats think they'll be better off politically with "massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters"?

Here's the thing.  It's generally a good idea for politicians to listen to what their constituents are saying.  Sometimes, however, pols need to realize that polls are misleading. I think the current polling on spending and deficits -- even in marginal districts -- is almost certainly an example where politicians need to use more sophisticated political judgment than just reading simple polling.

On two counts. One is about what people really believe and act on. It's certainly possible that people care more about deficits and/or government spending than they do about unemployment, well-staff schools, and fully staffed local government, but I'd be very, very, wary of believing that without quite a lot of evidence. A simple question about spending or deficits, one that doesn't discuss trade-offs, is weak evidence indeed.

The second is that sometimes politicians do, in fact, know a bit more than their constituents, and should act on that information. Now, I do think this is dangerous territory -- a pol who always thinks that she knows what the people "really" want is going to find herself an ex-pol very rapidly. It takes, in other words, careful political judgment. Here's what I'd say: If voters in marginal districts are against government spending because they actually want smaller government, then I think it makes sense for their representatives to listen to that preference.  On the other hand, if they oppose deficits because they believe that deficits are bad for the economy, and if experts are convinced that deficits right now are, to the contrary, good for the economy... well, then, spend away! Again, I think this is, in fact, dangerous territory -- ideologues on all sides are always convinced that the people "really" support whatever they want, or at least would if they payed attention, or were educated enough, or if it wasn't for the horribly biased press, or whatever. Still, I think on this one polling and political history make it fairly clear that whatever people say to pollsters when prompted, what most voters really want is good economic policy that produces growth and jobs. 

I should say that this is one thing that I'll own up to being completely wrong about, by the way.  I hadn't started blogging a year ago, but if I had I would have suggested that the difference in the size of the stimulus between when Congress produced and what economists said was needed was not all that important, because there was nothing to prevent Congress from going back and adding new stimulus spending at any point -- and since the policy people were telling us that there were real constraints on how fast the money could be spent, it didn't really matter whether the initial package included everything that was needed. Well, I was wrong. I'm surprised, and have been surprised for some time, at the lack of enthusiasm for more stimulus spending from the White House and from liberals in Congress, and at the apparent willingness of marginal Democrats to buy the deficit hype. I think Benen's logic is exactly correct, and I am, in fact, baffled about why marginal Dems don't agree. 

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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Democratic Party Unemployment