Madness to their method

Voters had their low opinion of Congress and President Bush validated this week with the messy defeat of the Paulson-Bush bailout plan. Many have called Paulson “tone deaf” for the way this process was handled. I’d suggest it was worse than that. Paulson, Bush and members of Congress were guilty of political malpractice.

As noted here last week, Paulson was one of the least credible messengers you could have chosen to promote the bailout. If you are asking to save Wall Street, you don’t send a rich former investment banker to sell the plan. Having it endorsed by a president with the highest disapproval rating in history only makes the job harder. And once this package was branded a “bailout,” it was DOA. Hardworking, middle-class Americans have a hard time relating to saving the folks who got us into this mess in the first place.

The administration, and congressional leaders as well, also completely mangled the message with the complexity of their explanations. No one can really explain all the complex securities that supposedly underlie the credit meltdown. When they tried, they just made it more difficult to get people to buy into a $700 billion solution. Whenever Paulson talked to the press, he talked over the people. His attitude and his story line played like “Trust us, this is too complicated for you to understand but it really is good for you.” When President Bush made his brief television appearances he looked scared and confused and just didn’t connect with people on the need for a $700 billion solution. Congressional leaders, of either party, didn’t do much better. “We really don’t want to do this but we have no other choice” was the take-away from most of them.

No one ever communicated to the American people just what they would get out of this plan. Even presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain couldn’t quite get it right. Obama did make the case that taxpayers should get some equity so they’d have a chance at an upside profit, but folks aren’t seeing much upside to stock ownership these days. That sounded like a lot of blue-sky salesmanship. McCain’s stupid pet trick of “suspending” his campaign and flying back to Washington to herd the Congress toward a solution only demonstrated he was ineffective in trying to round up votes for a package most people didn’t want passed in the first place.

What was in it for voters? Very few could see anything. That’s why the millions of calls and e-mails that swamped the Congress were running as high as a hundred to one against the plan as the vote neared. If ever there was an example of grassroots activism defining the political landscape, this was it. The response from members in the House reminded me of what the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) once said about grassroots campaigns: “When I feel the heat, I see the light.” Rank-and-file members saw the light and deserted the leaders of both parties, leaving them looking embarrassed, ineffective and scrambling for excuses.

Then, finally, a clear message cut through the clutter. The stock market tanked once the package was rejected. Millions of Americans saw the value of their retirement plans get a very nasty haircut. All of a sudden folks started to get the message. By Tuesday, voters were more concerned about the fact that Congress had failed to come up with a solution than about a plan crafted by and for Wall Street.

As I write this, the Senate has not yet voted on the original or a revised package. One hopes that the Senate version will be tougher on Wall Street and easier on Main Street — but mostly one hopes something will get done. It is probably too late to re-brand this as a “consumer protection act” rather than a Wall Street bailout, probably too late to send Henry Paulson to his room and put a human face on the problem and probably too late to make anyone on the Hill look like a real leader.

That means someone is going to pay for completely botching the message on a problem that needed to be fixed. A lot of members of Congress and senators may be the ones paying. It’s hard to say they don’t deserve it. This administration and this Congress have clearly demonstrated why voters are fed up with them. If those inside the Beltway haven’t got that message yet, they are likely to hear it loud and clear on Nov. 4.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com