The Bailout Defeat: A Political Credibility Crisis

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Mark Wilson / Getty

House minority leader John Boehner, left, and House minority whip Roy Blunt speak to reporters after the vote on the bailout bill failed

There was a lack of trust, a loss of confidence, a popular revolt.

Nearly every major political leader in the U.S. supported the $700 billion financial-bailout bill. The President. The Vice President. The Treasury Secretary. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Democratic and Republican nominees for President. The Democratic and Republican leadership of the House and Senate. All of them said the same thing: vote yes.

But a majority of those politicians anointed by the Constitution to reflect the will of the people voted no. This is a remarkable event, the culmination of a historic sense of betrayal that Americans have long felt for their representatives in Washington. The nation's credit crisis on Monday exposed a much deeper and more fundamental problem: a crisis of political credibility that now threatens to harm our nation further, should the markets freeze up and more companies begin to fail, as many experts predict.

The problem has been growing for years. Roughly 28% of Americans approve of President Bush. Roughly 18% of Americans approve of Congress. Now those low numbers and majority of bad feelings have manifested themselves in the starkest of terms.

Asked to take a leap of faith regarding a dizzyingly complex problem, a critical mass of voters refused to trust their leaders, turning down the medicine that was offered. And so the politicians who are most exposed to popular whims have run for cover. With an election on the horizon, 95 House Democrats and 133 House Republicans opposed the bill. Some portion voted no for clearly ideological reasons. But many more were simply doing what politicians do — responding to the will of the people.

An analysis by statistician Nate Silver, who runs, made this clear. Of the 38 incumbent members of Congress from both parties who are considered vulnerable in the coming election, 30 voted against the bill (eight supported it). By contrast, members of Congress from relatively safe districts were evenly divided — 197 for it to 198 against it.

"What this showed more than anything else was that not even members of Congress can ignore a switchboard system of Capitol Hill that is so totally jammed," said Peter Sepp, a conservative opponent of the bill with the National Taxpayers Alliance.

If the experts are right, the nation now risks great financial hardship, because there was no one to stand up and explain the situation. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 778 points on the news. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson warned Monday afternoon that car loans and student loans were likely to tighten. Other economists have warned of the possibility of widespread corporate failures and unemployment, if the short-term credit markets freeze up. Bank failures, or mergers, are likely to continue. The taxpayer costs of federal insurance on deposits could increase.

In a worst-case scenario, economic historians may find that all of Paulson's predictions come true, leaving the cost to the Federal Government far greater than the risky $700 billion investment in the private sector. If this comes to pass, the historians will find many people to blame: Paulson and President Bush for failing to explain the plan better. The House leadership for failing to whip enough votes. Even the presidential candidates for failing to use their bully pulpit to force the issue.

But those historians should not forget that roots of the failure predate the vote on Monday, and even the mistakes of Wall Street. Years ago, the trust between the people and their politicians was broken. Credibility was lost. The reserve of goodwill went bankrupt. And when they needed it most, our nation's leaders found that they had squandered their ability to exert influence over the people who chose them to lead.

(See the ten steps to the financial meltdown here and TIME's photos of the global financial crisis here.)

(See TIME's Pictures of the Week here.)