The Horrible Politics of $1,400 Checks

Why on earth would Democrats not pass $2,000 checks as promised?

Last month, Data for Progress released the results of a poll showing that nearly two-thirds of American voters believed the government ought to give out universal relief payments of $2,000 per month for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. Given that, after winning both Senate elections in Georgia, the Democratic Party now controls the House, the Senate, and the White House, you might think that the party would be pushing exactly this kind of policy. We know it’s popular—the Democrats put $2,000 relief checks at the center of their pitch to Georgia voters, and they won in a state that isn’t easy electoral territory for Democrats. Joe Biden promised that if the Democrats won in Georgia, a third round of stimulus checks for $2,000 would “go out the door immediately.” 

Now that they are in power, what is happening? Biden and congressional Democrats are currently pushing through a new $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan. But the plan does not include the monthly $2,000 checks favored by the public. Nor does it even include the $2,000 checks Biden promised would “go out the door” if Democrats won the senate. Instead, it includes checks for $1,400, and the Biden administration has indicated that it may well narrow the group of people who receive the checks, so that far fewer people get them than received the last relief payments. (The previous $600 and $1200 checks already missed large numbers of people who needed them.) 

Defenders of Biden and the congressional Democrats argue that the party never promised it would send out $2,000 checks, despite Georgia campaign ads like this: 

Instead, they say, the phrase “$2,000 checks” actually meant that $1,400 would be added to the $600 sent out two months ago by the Trump administration, to provide what Biden now calls “a total of $2,000 in cash relief to people who need it the most.” There are no actual checks—like the one depicted above—for $2,000, but those who insist Biden hasn’t broken a promise say that the public should never have interpreted “$2,000 checks” to mean “checks for $2,000.” Rather, they should’ve understood it to mean  “a sum total of relief money over time that adds up  to $2,000.” The Biden administration also does not believe it is reversing itself by giving the new money to fewer people than the Trump administration did, because after all, Biden didn’t explicitly say who would get the money. 

All of this is utterly maddening. Even if one accepts the argument that nobody ever intended for the Biden administration to send people  new $2,000 checks, but merely to supplement a previous Trump-era check, Biden and the Democrats are at the very least guilty of horrible misleading messaging. If what would “go out the door” under Biden was $1,400, that’s what they should have said. If by “immediately” they did not mean “immediately” but “a number of months later” they should not have said “immediately.” Now they face headlines like this:

Under no theory of politics does this count as a P.R. success. It is exactly the sort of thing a new administration wants to avoid. “WELL ACTUALLY, what we meant was different, and you simply do not understand math” is not a winning message.

The most frustrating part of this is that Democrats have lost a fantastic opportunity to get unqualified public support, and gotten mired in a debate they didn’t need to have. Why on Earth would Democrats even feel the need to drop the payments from $2,000 to $1,400? Maybe they intended $1,400 when they said $2,000, but if the public is behind $2,000, then why cling to $1,400? Just push for $2,000! Democrats are not supposed to be the party of austerity, constantly trying to get government to do as little as possible for people without creating a populist uprising. That’s what the Republican Party is for. You’re the party of FDR. You’re supposed to do as much as you can. 

We know that even new $2,000 checks fall short of the relief people need—in May of last year, Democrats were starting to get behind monthly $2,000 payments, and all we’ve had so far is a measly trickle of two checks in a year (and millions of people didn’t even get those). So they should be trying to do as much as possible, rather than explaining why what seems like less than they promised is actually not less than they promised, because their promise was deliberately misleading. I cannot understand why you would do this. The economic arguments against the checks have been transparently flimsy, and tend to boil down to “that seems like a lot of money,” with little consideration given to the incredible boon that generous payments would be for people during a time of crisis.

So there was no reason to be stingy on the payments. But adding new income caps, which the Biden administration has said it is open to doing, is even worse. As Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project explains, this is going to end up hurting a lot of people who have lost income recently. The government will assume, based on old data, that they earn more than they currently do, and they’ll be deprived of their stimulus payment. Everyone in that category will be pissed at the Democratic Party for lying to them. Is it a good idea to make needless enemies among voters like this?

I am very troubled by the fact that Democrats are screwing up an early opportunity for a big political win. They can point to all the other good parts of their stimulus package, and hopefully Biden will finally give up his ridiculous never-ending yearning for bipartisan support. Early signs are good that Democrats are not going to make the mistake that Obama made of seriously considering the absurd Republican counterproposals. But it is an easy way to get people to trust you if you say the phrase “$2,000 checks” and then they get a $2,000 check. It shows them, in a way that is real and that they can feel, that their government is working for them and means what it says. It will be one of the most direct ways in which the stimulus hits them personally. Explaining why they should never have expected $2,000 checks sounds a lot like the same old political B.S. that people despise. Do not be surprised to see party supporters saying things like this:

(Of course the replies contain Democrats helpfully telling the user she cannot do math and misunderstood the campaign promise, which I am sure is likely to get her jazzed up about helping the party out in future.) 

The Democrats need to work hard to get people real relief, because if the Biden presidency becomes unpopular, the right will sweep into power in 2022 and 2024. And the American right is more extreme and terrifying than ever. The stakes are extremely high and it’s a very bad sign to see, right at the start, a clear promise getting watered down and compromised for no good reason. The Democrats should not be giving in despite being in control of Congress and the presidency. They can’t afford to screw this up. 

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