wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost

Why the debt limit vote isn’t the second coming of TARP

at 03:55 PM ET, 08/02/2011

A near-catastrophe strikes the country, and Congress improvises a last-minute solution that divides both parties and leaves the political bases of fuming.

Sound familiar? That’s because it happened three years ago when Congress passed the bank bailout, otherwise known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

And now, just as then, there is plenty of talk that a ‘yes’ vote for the debt ceiling compromise will leave a member – particularly a Republican – vulnerable to a primary challenge down the road. (We broached this idea four months ago on this blog.)

But now that the dust has settled, it’s pretty clear that the vote is not on par with TARP.

It’s true that virtually very Republican running in any competitive primary — be it presidential, Senate or House — opposed the deal. But there’s very little to suggest that those who chose to support the deal will pay a significant political price as some TARP supporters did.

The main difference between the two pieces of legislation is that while those who voted to raise the debt limit may be cast as increasing the country’s debt, they can rightly point out that they got spending cuts too — maybe not as many as they or others would have liked but still something.

When it came to TARP, the argument was much more politically difficult to sell since an opponent could attack a “yes” voter with this simple line: ‘This person voted to use your money to bail out big banks.’ And there wasn’t much to say in response, besides trying to convince people that TARP worked in heading off an even greater economic disaster. That was a losing argument basically every time.

Democratic consultant Jon Vogel says the vote is “nothing like TARP.”

“Unlike TARP, which cost $700 billion, this is a defecit reduction plan that contains no giveaways or perceived villains,” Vogel said.

Tea Party Express founder Sal Russo agreed.

“I think everyone agrees that this is a bad deal in terms of really making cuts and getting the deficit and national debt under control, but it is probably as close to what is doable at the present time,” Russo said.

Those who say the vote could be a hindrance rightly point out that essentially every Republican who could have something to fear from the vote, voted or spoke out against it — with the notable exceptions of presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Senate candidate Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.) and gubernatorial candidate Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). (It should be noted that Berg and Pence are both strong favorites in 2012 and face no major opposition in their primaries right now.)

What we have to remember is that many of these candidates who voted “no” may have done so out of an abundance of caution following the results of the 2010 election.

Primary losses by Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as well as a handfulof House members almost certainly had a chilling effect on any Republican worried about a challenge from their ideological right.

“It may not have the sting of TARP, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this in television commercials and speeches next spring,” said one Republican strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. “It may not be a howitzer, but it’s certainly a bullet.”

There’s also the matter of how many Republicans voted for the bill. GOPers supported the debt limit deal by a 174-66 margin, a stark contrast to TARP where more Republicans in the House voted against it than for it.

That means that for groups like the Club for Growth and the tea party who may oppose an incumbent over his or her vote, it’s going to be hard to pick and choose targets. And there’s a lot more political cover for those who did vote for it. (A prime example is Lugar who benefited mightily from having the decidedly conservative Pence vote for the bill in the House.)

“Too many Republicans voted for this for it to be compared to TARP,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone.

Added GOP pollster Glen Bolger: “Given how the liberals are whining that Obama got rolled, and there were no tax increases, and spending is being cut on a significant scale, it is hard to say – especially when the Democrats control the presidency and the Senate – that this is anything but a win for conservatives.”

More on PostPolitics

Mitt Romney gets energized

Boehner grows on GOP tea partiers

 
Read what others are saying