South Beach-Based Author Michael Grunwald Is Changing D.C.'s Mind About the Stimulus
You credit Rubio's rise against Crist in large part to his early opposition to the stimulus. How much of a factor was that stance in driving Crist out of the GOP?
Marco Rubio told me at the time that the stimulus and that famous kiss between Obama and Crist was a clarifying moment for Republicans. If I can back tap myself a little, I made some good and some bad predictions, but Rubio was among my good calls. I wrote a piece when Rubio was down 30 points in the polls saying that Charlie was in deep trouble. It was just Occam's razor. Charlie was a bipartisan guy in a partisan primary. The stimulus became a key issue not because of what it was but because it was Obama's first big move out of the gate, so it set the tone that a "real" Republican was someone who was willing to fight Obama. It wasn't someone who supports the middle-class tax cuts in the stimulus, like Crist. Rubio shrewdly recognized this at the time.
I do tell one Rubio story that I do think really represents the problems with Republican opposition to the stimulus. I'm not some flaming liberal defending every piece of this, but I do think the Rubio is wrong in seizing on this idea. So Rubio in some speech says basically that somewhere in America, there's someone in a garage right now inventing a battery that will change society and doing it without the government's help. There's a real lack of knowledge about the history of technological progress in saying that. There are these unbelievably creative guys who are inventing batteries right now that will someday power an entire city. But in every single case, they're using technology startup funds and grants for demo projects from the government. Ultimately, you need grants to build factories to give unproven technology a chance to succeed. Sometimes, you get a Solyndra (the failed solar panel firm supported by the stimulus), but that's a risk you take in funding innovation. So in that sense, I do think Rubio stands for this sort of Tea Party idea that nothing positive can come from government investment.
It's unusual to write a book that changes the conversation in Washington while living in South Beach, of all places. Does it help you to be so far outside the DC echo chamber, in a place where eight out of ten people probably have never heard of the stimulus, much less Solyndra?
There are pros and cons. I moved down here while working on The Swamp, and I met my wife and ended up moving up down here full time. At first, it was kind of nice to be around people who weren't talking about Abu Ghraib all the time. But it did take some time to find people who didn't think Abu Ghraib was a designer. Eventually, you find like minded people anywhere.
Logistically, I did a lot of reporting all around the country for this book. Sure, it would have been really helpful to be in DC on a more regular basis, instead of scheduling trips every time I needed to do interviews. But I lived in DC for 9 years. I'm a pretty contrarian dude, but I don't think I would have come up with this book if I'd been living in DC. The groupthink is so powerful there. Just the idea of writing a book about the stimulus up in DC would be ridiculous, because everyone there knows what the stimulus is: it's a joke. That's what it is. It's almost impossible to talk about the stimulus without this ironic voice where you're letting everyone know you're in on the joke. If you try to talk about it as serious policy, it's hardy har har.
I was never a cocktail party reporter, but when all your friends are part of this groupthink, it's tough to look objectively at something like this. What' I'm saying about the stimulus in this book, I think will become conventional wisdom up there eventually. But the idea was so crazy, even talking to my bosses, pitching a story about the stimulus, if you've watched Aaron Sorkin's new show ("Newsroom), I felt like that blogger kid pitching his story that Bigfoot is real.
There's a narrative in DC, a narrative, by the way, that always centers around the president. The president is either a hero, a "mission accomplished" hero, or a post-Katrina bumbling idiot. If I was a savvier businessman, I would not have gone out to market this book in the fall of 2010, because I'm trying to sell a book about this "new new deal" at a time when the narrative was that Obama was an idiot. He was a schmuck. How the hell do you sell that?
Lest you think I'm that far-seeing when I was negotiating with publisher, my real worry was that by the time this book came out, the conventional wisdom would already be that the stimulus was a groundbreaking piece of legislation. I remember when I was still at the Washington Post, Tom Ricks told me he was working about the War in Iraq and said the title would be "Fiasco." I was like, "Really? That's ballsy." This was right around the time of "Mission Accomplished" and all that. And he told me, "No, my real fear is it will be conventional wisdom by the time it lands."
I mean, I did a lot of reporting for this book, but it's not like it's based on some spectacular feat of digging. It's not a secret that there's $90 billion in stimulus for energy projects. It shouldn't surprise anyone that putting $90 billion would make a really big difference in our energy policy.
So it's a little bit of both excitement that it hasn't become conventional wisdom yet and worry that I'm setting myself up for a shellacking. But I do think it's going to be hard for anyone to look at this and not say, "Look, this dude did a shitload of reporting." They may not like the conclusions I reach, but there are a lot of facts in here. You can take the facts and put a different spin on them, and there should be interesting debates.
There's a funny scene at the end of the book where I'm talking to Biden, and he's giving me shit about how I was the only one writing anything nice about the stimulus. He's like, "I loved your articles, I took them to bed with me." Look, I've been a reporter for 20 years. I didn't get into journalism to write articles that Joe Biden would want to cuddle with. But there's some truth to that. I felt at times like I was covering this bizarro-world stimulus that nobody else saw: on time, under budget, virtually fraud-free, full of good government reforms, and transforming out national approach to energy, health care, education, transportation, and economic growth. Hopefully now others will see it, too.