America’s rudderless ships of state sailed themselves onto the shoals of shallow governance Monday. The wreckage was a failure heard — and felt — ’round the world.
The House of Representatives’228-205 rejection of a bipartisan plan to rescue the shattered U.S. economy was a sudden, simultaneous failure of not just one, but three of our democracy’s ships of state: Leadership, Follow-ship, and Citizenship.
And make no mistake, all must share the blame: Our feckless president, who never saw the crisis coming and never even saw the need to get himself, let alone his administration, up to speed. Our bark-less federal watchdogs and regulators. Our helpless congressional leaders, who reverted to blame-game politics even before the vote was lost. Our hopeless Democratic and Republican rank-and-file representatives, who pandered to uninformed folks back home by refusing to follow their leaders’ bipartisan plan. Even though it was a plan to rescue not merely Wall Street but all of us from a credit-paralyzed economy that threatens the futures of us all.
And not so fast — blame must also go to many of the rest of us. Thousands of citizens fired off wrong-headed warnings to their representatives after being willingly conned by the loudest electronic media shouting-heads. They fell for demagogues who insisted long-suffering taxpayers shouldn’t spend $700 billion of our tax dollars to bail out greedy Wall Street executives.
This was a failure of message politics. A failure by Washington’s bipartisan pooh-bahs. President Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, et al, lost control of the labels and messages used to describe the plan. "Bailout Plan" (not "Rescue Plan") was slapped across our television sets as earnest suits labored to communicate details. Blah-blah Wall Street, blah-blah Main Street.
Lost was the fact that the government could recoup much of what it was spent when it sold mortgages it bought. Only near the end did Team Bush agree to ban golden parachutes for departing execs. Everyone talked abut trickle down benefits for taxpayers who were sick of being trickled on.
And mainly: You probably never heard the plan being described first and foremost in terms of you. Nor in terms of the company or small business you work for. You never heard the president or congressional leaders tell you the rescue plan’s goal was to make sure that you can keep your job — by making sure your company’s best customers can still get the credit they need to do business with your company. Because if your company loses its customers, you could lose your job.
Just why did the plan fail when a switch of just 12 House votes could have saved it? The New York Times produced a superb graphic that exposed one myth mouthed by video pundits who assumed that most of the "no" voters were afraid of losing their House seats in next month’s election. But among the 228 "no" votes, 111 were Republicans from safe or very strong GOP districts; and 83 were Democrats from safe or strongly Democratic districts. The bill failed because staunch conservatives and stalwart liberals just wanted to be able to go home and crow that they refused to bailout Wall Street’s fat cats.
So, watch these one-winged political birds. When the same basic rescue plan is voted on anew, with a small fig leaf of change inserted for political cover, they won’t recant or repent. But a good number of them will switch and vote yes. And then — with a prideful strut performed only by species of peacocks and politicos — they will proclaim their economic mission accomplished.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)