Syria is the new TARP

September 4, 2013
One of these things is a lot like the other (Melina Mara/Washington Post)
One of these things . . . (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
 . .. is a lot like the other (Charles Dharapak/AP)
... is a lot like the other (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Maybe it is a fit of nostalgia due to a five-year anniversary coming up. But as the debate over a congressional resolution to authorize military strikes in Syria heats up, there are some striking similarities with another tense debate on Capitol Hill.

It was five years ago this month that the Bush administration went to Congress to ask for what would become the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bailout for the nation's banking system. It came at a moment of mounting crisis, shortly after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and de facto nationalization of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG. And while the substance of the policy is completely different from what the nation faces in dealing with Syria's civil war, the way that debate played out has some interesting parallels that have some use in predicting what comes next.

These are the similarities: A second-term president decided to go to Congress to get legislative buy-in for a response to a long-building crisis. The crisis itself was a morass, with no good options. Even with the TARP, we experienced the worst financial crisis and recession in generations; even with U.S. intervention in Syria, Syria will almost certainly be an unstable mess for many years.

As with TARP legislation, the administration's initial proposal is short, open-ended and leaves immense power with the executive: The Obama administration's Syria resolution is a mere two pages, while the initial legislation for TARP that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson proposed was a whopping three pages (that's $233 billion per page, if you're counting).

Both were wildly unpopular: Only 36 percent of Americans supported missile strikes in Syria according to one poll, and on the verge of passage 45 percent supported the bank bailout, numbers that fell from there. Anecdotal reports from Capitol Hill both then and now were of an overwhelming majority of constituent calls and e-mails recommending "no votes."

The Obama administration officials dispatched to Capitol Hill to defend the proposal seemed as outmatched in defending the Syrian resolution as did the Bush administration's emissaries on behalf of the TARP. Perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry and former treasury secretary Hank Paulson can compare notes one day on how to defend a proposal that no one likes very much.

And  five years ago with the TARP, President Bush was able to secure support from both Democratic and Republican congressional leadership, who fought hard to persuade recalcitrant members to vote for such an unpopular and distasteful piece of legislation. Now, President Obama has secured support from House Republican leadership, even as rank-and-file Republicans seem to be coming out in large numbers against the measure.

And it appears that passage is most uncertain in the Republican-controlled House for that reason; the same was true of TARP. Indeed, it initially failed in a House vote before being approved in slightly modified form a few days later.

Much of this is coincidence, and of course a global financial crisis and a bloody civil war in a Middle Eastern country are very different situations, as are their potential responses. But the important thing the two situations have in common is this: A distrust of elite opinion by a large swath of the American population, and the lawmakers who represent them.

We've been through a difficult decade, of seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a financial crisis that has caused five long years of economic misery. The people in charge -- the Bush administration then and the Obama administration now -- can't rely  on "just trust us" when asking for support for a policy. And within the halls of Congress, many members see little incentive to defy their constituents out of deference to the perceived wisdom of the secretary of state or secretary of the treasury.

If you want to view it positively, this is democracy asserting itself. It is good that there is a vibrant debate around the United States' strategy in Syria. At the same time, democracy is messy. And if Congress blocks the legislation, it could leave  Obama and his national security team with their hands tied more than when they started. Similarly, the big gamble that Bush and Paulson were taking with the TARP is that rejection could cause more severe financial crisis than a failure to propose it.

But you have to earn trust, and over the past decade, the American elite class, whether in foreign policy or the financial sphere, has failed to do so.

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Brad Plumer · September 4, 2013