Rescue Package Not the Only Loser In House's Vote

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

There were no winners when the House voted down the economic rescue package on Monday. The collective breakdown of leadership in Washington left political wreckage rivaling that in the financial markets -- and it spread across the spectrum.

Who were the losers from Monday's debacle? Certainly President Bush, whose virtual lame-duck status does not fully describe the apparent limits of his power to make things happen at this moment. The Washington Post-ABC News poll taken Monday night showed another drop in his approval rating, to its lowest point of his presidency -- 26 percent, with 70 percent disapproving.

The president was slow to sound the alarms to the public as the crisis deepened, and he ceded most authority to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. When he finally stepped up, he was unable to rally either public opinion or members of his own party behind a rescue package that bore his stamp of approval.

His speech last week was notable for the clarity with which he described the threat to the economy and equally notable for the lack of impact it had on public opinion or Republicans in Congress. For all he was able to do to put the crisis into understandable terms, he could not convince enough Americans that the rescue package was aimed as much at protecting their finances as it was at protecting greedy financial firms and executives.

Next in line are the House Republicans, long the ideological outliers in a political party that aspires to majority status. A veteran of a past Republican administration could barely spit out his contempt Monday at the actions of the House Republicans. "They would rather be right in their views -- that ideology counts more, that ideology is crucial in any decision -- rather than making incremental progress," he said.

The vote Monday underscored the political disarray within the party. House Republicans reflect the ideological purity of the conservative movement, but they are not by any means representative of a governing majority in the country.

The party's nomination battle did nothing to resolve those divisions and probably simply papered them over through the election. If John McCain loses to Barack Obama in November, the party is in for a long period of infighting and introspection. If McCain wins, he may be confronted with many of the same problems Bush has faced through much of his second term -- a president in serious disagreement with at least part of his party.

The Republican Party is leaderless and lacking in cohesion. The president is certainly not in charge. McCain sought to exert power over the party to no avail, and in the process he raised more questions about his own style of leadership. None of the congressional leaders have stepped up.

House Republican leader John Boehner's performance has been truly mystifying. Last Wednesday he issued a joint statement with Speaker Nancy Pelosi touting the bipartisan progress being made on the package. The next day, at the White House, he was promoting an alternative plan in the name of House Republicans that caught Democrats and Paulson totally by surprise.

On Monday, he and House Republican Whip Roy Blunt were confident they had the votes needed to pass the rescue package, but they turned out to be lousy vote counters. When the bill went down, he and Blunt and Rep. Eric Cantor all blamed Pelosi for scaring off a dozen of his colleagues with what he called an overly partisan speech.

Peter Wehner, a former Bush administration official, wrote Tuesday on the National Review blog that the Republican leaders' excuse was "foolish and irresponsible." "On one of the most important votes they will ever cast, insisting 'the speech made me do it' is lame and adolescent," he wrote.

Still, Pelosi deserves no praise for her leadership on Monday. Even stipulating that we are in the closing weeks of one of the most important political campaigns in a generation, her inability to rise above the tendency to score political points was inexcusable. Monday's vote was a moment to set aside those instincts and talk about the package as an example of Washington's ability to work cooperatively in a time of crisis.

Instead, Pelosi accused Bush of economic policies that create "budgetary recklessness" and "an anything-goes mentality." And she closed with a partisan call to arms. "In the new year, with a new Congress and a new president," she said, "we will break free with a failed past and take America in a new direction to a better future."

Pelosi's partisan rhetoric has been echoed, though less prominently, by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, who has sounded grudging in his comments about the Democrats' willingness to participate in finding a solution to a problem that he argues is wholly the fault of Bush and the Republicans.

Obama may bear less of the blame for what happened Monday than others, but largely because he put less on the line than McCain. Perhaps that was the right posture to take for a presidential candidate who has at best only limited authority to get into the thick of the negotiations. But he will get less credit if and when anything finally passes.

The voters will sort out the blame on all this in November. Anger at Washington will feed a hunger for change, and it's likely to fall harder on the GOP as the party that holds the White House. But for the next president and the next Congress, whatever its makeup, Monday's performance should be looked at as an example of what it was, a performance designed to undermine the public's confidence in its elected leadership.

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