I just finished reading Too Big to Fail, the best-selling account by Andrew Ross Sorkin of the economic crisis of 2008.
Sorkin’s book confirmed what I thought I remembered from those turbulent days: that the Republican administration of George W. Bush, led by a Republican secretary of the treasury, Henry Paulson, and Ben Bernanke, a Republican chairman of the Federal Reserve, conspired (in a good way) to steer a group of greedy and foolish and mostly-Republican Wall Street bankers to something like a safe landing.
It was not a pretty or coherent process. Bear Stearns and AIG got bailed out. Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Our 401(k)’s cratered. And the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), while saving America from another Great Depression, proved hideously unpopular when voters discovered that those same greedy Wall Street executives were still reaping humongous bonuses.
Which leaves me to marvel at what happened this fall, when the Republican Party pulled off the stunning trick of using millions of dollars in donations from those very same Wall Street pirates to finance campaigns that blamed the Democrats for TARP, thus installing a Republican House of Representatives that seems bent on easing the new federal regulations that are supposed to prevent another catastrophic financial crisis and bailouts.
Putting the gross dishonesty of the Republican tactics aside, I have to give them credit for chutzpah, and marvel at the Democratic Party’s ineptitude. All the more so, in that this is not the first time that something like this has happened.
In 2002, the Democrats in Congress decided that a new cabinet agency--the Department of Homeland Security--was needed to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. Bush and the Republicans opposed the notion as wasteful, until the bill got mired in the Democratic Senate by a squabble over how to treat the unionized federal work force. The Republicans then spun 180 degrees, embraced the department as an essential component of the War on Terror, and lambasted the Democrats for placing lazy federal bureaucrats above our security. It was, said a marveling Bill Clinton at the time, one of the most outrageous political tricks he ever witnessed. And Slick Willie knows his politics.
Which brings us to the 2012 presidential campaign, and the ongoing efforts of the Republican Party’s potential candidates to appease the Tea Party types, in several cases by trying to rewrite history. I speak not just of Mitt Romney (whose repeated endorsement of a government mandate to force citizens to buy health insurance is documented on a very funny YouTube clip) but of the darling herself, Sarah Palin.
As Sorkin’s book reminds us, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates had a choice to make in the fall of 2008. They could support Bush and Paulson and Bernanke during the crisis, or go rogue and score some cheap political points. To their great credit, John McCain and Sarah Palin joined Barack Obama and Joe Biden and supported the president at this moment of national peril. Palin--who would resign as governor of Alaska in midterm because it didn’t suit her lifestyle--didn’t protest or step down from the ticket over TARP. Indeed, when looking back at the 2008 campaign in her book Going Rogue, Palin criticized those House Republicans who balked at TARP and the other rescue measures.
Yet when TARP became political poison, and helped to inspire the Tea Party movement, Palin was more than willing to join the other Republicans in the 2010 campaign in the game of being for TARP at its inception, and flagrantly trying to rewrite history when the opportunity required. She had the gall even to rant on Facebook about the “too big to fail” mentality, and to complain about the influence of Goldman Sachs on President Obama when it was Paulson, of course, who went straight to Bush’s cabinet from a job as CEO of Goldman Sachs, and Bush’s White House chief of staff, Joshua Bolton, who was another Goldman Sachs alumnus.
In 2010, Sarah and the Republicans got away with being for TARP before they were against it. The Democrats will no doubt fail at calling attention to this hypocrisy in 2012, as they failed this fall. But maybe Romney, who is always under fire for his own flip-flops, will remind GOP voters of Palin’s TARP somersaults. Or maybe Palin’s fans are so blinded that it won’t make a difference.