WaPo Wonders: How Can You Spend a Trillion Dollars with 'Tangible Results' and Be Doubted?

August 8th, 2010 7:41 AM

The front page of Saturday's Washington Post carried an article by Shailagh Murray from Ohio's 13th congressional district, just west of Cleveland. The dominant theme was two-term Rep. Betty Sutton's whining that her GOP opponent Ted Ganley, a car dealer, benefited from Cash for Clunkers but now bashes it. The Post wondered about why Democrats get so little credit for the "stimulus," and Murray's central question was this:

How can nearly $1 trillion flush through the U.S. economy, with tangible results, and still leave voters dubious? ["Flushed" is a good verb for this.]

Some blame Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress for failing to set clear and realistic expectations...

It proved difficult to keep track of all that spending, and the White House and Democratic leaders had a hard time showing how it was contributing to the recovery.

"The branding and marketing was done very poorly," said Alan Blinder, a Princeton University economist who supported the stimulus. "When you spend that much money, there should be more recognition."

About $2 billion of the stimulus money flowed to Sutton's Ohio District. The funds are paying for 628 projects, making it one of the largest concentrations of federal spending in the Midwest.

But when you look at the "tangible" Sutton results that the Post lists, even if you were local, you'd wonder if this is the "smart" way to create jobs -- as opposed to pleasing a list of constituent groups:

The list includes $400 million to replace the decrepit Inner Belt Bridge in suburban Cleveland and $25 million to expand a BASF Catalysts lithium-ion battery plant in Elyria. The Akron Urban League received $2 million to expand broadband Internet service to 3,500 users, creating 13 jobs. The town of Lorain secured $15,390 to retrofit seven school buses with pollution-control gear, and the Ohio Department of Transportation won a $2,500 grant to buy spare parts for the Brunswick municipal fleet. And the Car Allowance Rebate System, better known as Cash for Clunkers, lured customers into auto showrooms, staving off layoffs at the local Ford factory and its suppliers.

Here's how Murray began her Saturday article, complete with Mean GOP overtones:

Republican House candidate Tom Ganley sold more than 800 cars last summer through the "Cash for Clunkers" government rebate program. But does Uncle Sam get a thank you?

"Let's talk about Cash for Clunkers," the voluble millionaire, who owns the largest auto dealership group in Ohio, told a group of voters here recently. "It created a 30-day surge in auto sales. After it ended, there was no business. It was like the faucet was shut off."

As the nation struggled through a painful recession, the Democratic-led Congress rushed through nearly $1 trillion in spending and tax cuts, aiming to jump-start business investment, keep state and local governments afloat and put people to work, if only temporarily.

Most economists say the nationwide stimulus effort has generally paid off, although they differ on how much. But the cash infusion appears to have done little to restore public confidence either in the federal government or in the Democratic Party. The stimulus may have created or saved up to 3.6 million jobs, as the White House contends, but the jobless rate in Ohio still hovers at a crippling 10.4 percent.

That has left Democrats such as Ganley's opponent, Rep. Betty Sutton, trying to convince voters that the stimulus made a bad situation somewhat less bad.

Doesn't exactly pop off a bumper sticker.

And she ended by bashing Ganley as a hypocrite: 

Even Cash for Clunkers is difficult to measure empirically. Ganley is a critic, but some of his competitors are big fans. "It jump-started the entire industry, and it couldn't have come at a more opportune time," said Alan Spitzer, chief executive of Spitzer Auto Group, who urged Sutton to push the rebate program and whose 23 dealerships sold about 1,000 cars through Cash for Clunkers.

Joseph Lee, plant manager of the Avon Lake Ford plant, said the steady decline in production, which forced 200 layoffs in 2009, started to level off when Cash for Clunkers took effect. That was true even though his plant makes gas-guzzling Econoline vans, not the compact cars that were selling best. "All I know is my plant was shutting down week after week. And then we weren't."

A year ago, even Ganley had a rosier assessment of the program. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that it "certainly primed the pump," although he complained about its execution.

"It's a little duplicitous," Spitzer said of Ganley's reversal. "This program woke up the market. It was an unqualified success."

[Image of Sutton from the conservative site www.bettysutton2010.com]