Bailing Out of the Bailout

The Washington Sketch weighs in on the Wall Street bailout debate.Video by Akira Hakuta/washingtonpost.comAdditional footage courtesy of AP
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Congressional leaders assembled yesterday on the West Front of the Capitol for the "First Nail Ceremony" to start work on the viewing platform for the Jan. 20th presidential inauguration. While they had the hammer out, they should have nailed a sign to the Capitol door: "Help Wanted."

As the nation plunges into economic crisis, Washington imploded in a leadership vacuum yesterday.

1:17 p.m.: President Bush schedules a prime-time address to the nation to sell his Wall Street bailout package.

2:15 p.m.: Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a lead negotiator, announces progress in talks on the package.

2:30 p.m.: Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke testify to House in support of the plan.

2:46 p.m.: John McCain pronounces Bush's bailout proposal dead.

Is anybody in charge here?

Not the president, evidently. He's so unpopular that Democrats who favor a bailout plan urged him not to speak about it in public. "Frankly, I don't think that will help us pass the bill," Frank told reporters.

Not the vice president, either. After Dick Cheney appeared before House Republicans on Tuesday night to sell them on the proposal, lawmakers emerged howling about the "enslavement" of taxpayers and the "confiscation" of taxpayer money, and they likened the vice president's sales job to that of a used-car salesman or a shady Realtor.

And certainly not the Treasury secretary, whom lawmakers on both sides berated for a second consecutive day yesterday. "We may be looking at national bankruptcy and the road to socialism," Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) said after hearing from Paulson yesterday morning.

The presidential candidates, as the leaders of their parties, could bring recalcitrant lawmakers on board. And they have a powerful incentive: The crisis, if left unchecked, will almost surely make a mess of the first term of either John McCain or Barack Obama by leaving the country in a deep recession, or worse. But instead of proposals, they've offered platitudes.

McCain, meeting with business big shots in New York yesterday, took the bold stand that the bailout package should "be in the best interest of the people of this country." Further, the brave candidate proposed that the proposal should have "transparency, accountability, CEO responsibility." But don't corner him with specifics.

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