North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad mounts campaign to defend bank bailout, stimulus

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 10:17 PM

At a time when many lawmakers are running away from the hated 2008 bank bailout, Sen. Kent Conrad is holding it close - and waging a one-man campaign to rehabilitate the program in the eyes of angry voters.

Over the past week, Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, has crisscrossed the state, delivering speeches to college economics classes and lecturing skeptical editorial boards, in addition to making his pitch on national television.

On Thursday morning, thousands of North Dakota newspaper subscribers awoke to a full-page ad with colorful charts and graphs about the improving economy, alongside a vigorous defense of the bailout and the equally reviled 2009 economic stimulus package.

The ad describes the perilous economic conditions that prompted a terrified Congress to approve the $700 billion bailout - officially, the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP - just before the 2008 presidential election. It argues that TARP not only helped save the nation from a full-blown depression but cost much less than expected, with parts of the program turning a small profit.

And it cleverly reminds readers, front and center, that TARP was conceived by a Republican president, who just last week defended it during a lecture at the University of Texas at Tyler.

"President George W. Bush Explains Why He Created TARP," the ad says by way of introducing Bush's remarks, which are highlighted in yellow: "Depression, no depression . . . It wasn't that hard for me . . . I made the decision to use your money to prevent the collapse from happening."

Conrad, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is not on the ballot this year. And he has not decided whether to seek re-election when his term ends in 2012. So he has little to lose personally from defending the bailout.

Meanwhile, Democrats in North Dakota and nationally are getting hammered over their TARP and stimulus votes. Conrad said his campaign is an effort to help alleviate what he called "the major drag" on Democrats this campaign season.

Voter anger over the programs stems from "a fundamental lack of understanding," Conrad said. "At the time, we absolutely failed to help educate the American people as to how serious the situation was and how essential these steps were."

In addition to a Republican president, his Treasury secretary, his Federal Reserve chairman and Republican congressional leaders, Conrad said, Republican business leaders "came to us in droves" demanding aid for the banks and more liquidity through stimulus.

"Now all of a sudden they've all got amnesia," Conrad said. "But had people not stepped up, we would be in extremely serious shape."

If Conrad's efforts are successful, one of the chief beneficiaries is likely to be his good friend, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat who represents the entire state. Pomeroy is in the fight of his life against state lawmaker Rick Berg, who has assailed Pomeroy's support for the bank bailout and the stimulus package as evidence of his loyalty to President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Polls show Pomeroy and Berg in a statistical dead heat, and the Cook Political Report rates the race a tossup.

Pomeroy, for his part, has a new television ad out this week, conceding that "I've disappointed you with a vote here or there."

Republicans seem none too concerned that Conrad's message will hit home.

"We appreciate Senator Conrad's efforts to remind North Dakotans about the Wall Street bailout supported by Earl Pomeroy," said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. "And we encourage him to consider amplifying his message on radio and television."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company