Bailout vote underscores U.S. leadership crisis

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 29, 2008 

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The failure of a proposed Wall Street bailout Monday underscored that America is suffering not just from a financial crisis, but also from a crisis of political leadership.

"This has been a bad day for Washington and a bad day for American politics," said Harold Ford, a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee. "What happened today was an embarrassment for the country."

None of the country's political leaders, Republican or Democrat, has proved able to navigate the treacherous politics of the moment and secure an agreement to bail out the country's financial system and restore confidence in the marketplace.

President Bush is a largely discredited lame duck. He's not trusted by his own party and was unable to bend the Congress to his will even as he warned of a catastrophe if lawmakers rebelled.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his party's congressional leaders control the Congress and agreed with Bush's urgency, but they couldn't deliver a majority, either.

Still, they came closer than did Republican John McCain and his party's leaders in the House of Representatives, who delivered only 30 percent of the GOP votes for the compromise, while Democrats delivered some 60 percent of their members.

Leaders of both parties vowed to seek bipartisan cooperation toward drafting a compromise that could pass, but with their own elections five weeks away, they couldn't stop themselves from partisan attacks, which make the goal of bipartisan agreement even more difficult to reach.

Nowhere is the crisis more evident than it is in the White House.

Bush limps toward the end of his second term with among the lowest job-approval ratings in history — a recent Gallup poll found just 27 percent approving and 69 percent disapproving.

Worse, he's lost credibility in Congress, notably for leading the country into war in Iraq on false claims that Iraq had ties to al Qaida and weapons of mass destruction. When he dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to lobby House Republicans to support the Wall Street bailout, the closed-door session grew heated, and some members reportedly reminded Cheney that they'd trusted him on Iraq.

Bush also is paying a price for years of strong-arming Congress, particularly when he counted on then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to "hammer" proposals such as a costly expansion of Medicare past skeptical conservatives.

"There's no question the rank-and-file are carrying some grudges from the past," said Dan Schnur, the director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Democrats, who won control of both the House and Senate in 2006, also couldn't deliver. Congress's approval rating is even lower than Bush's, at around 18 percent.

When Obama, the party's new leader, learned of the plan's rejection, he spoke about Washington almost as if he weren't a member of Congress.

"Democrats and Republicans in Washington have a responsibility to make sure that an emergency rescue package is put forward that can at least stop the immediate problems we have so we can begin to plan for the future," he said.

He didn't say how he might lead or what role he'd play. "Step up to the plate," he told Congress. "Get it done."

His party's leaders in Congress also threw up their hands, as House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and others bragged that they'd delivered a majority of the Democratic votes, even though that wasn't enough.

"The Democratic side more than lived up to its side of the bargain," Pelosi said, lauding fellow Democratic leaders for "getting 60 percent of the House Democrats to support a bill which isn't our bill."

Republican leaders in Congress were powerless as well to deliver the votes they'd promised, saying that they lost about 12 committed votes when some of their members got mad at Pelosi.

"We could have gotten there today had it not been for this partisan speech that the speaker gave on the floor of the House," said House Republican Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.

McCain appeared as impotent as everyone else. He'd suspended his campaign briefly last week to rally support for the plan, and spent part of Saturday lobbying House Republicans by phone, but he couldn't deliver, either.

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