It turns out that the prospect of being hanged really does concentrate the mind.
With a noose of tight credit threatening to choke the economy, the Senate this week set Washington back on track to respond to the turmoil that is destabilizing the financial markets. Eventually, the House seems certain to follow, perhaps by the time you read this. Although more twists may lie ahead, the economic and political risks of inaction make action almost unavoidable.
Yet the image that will deservedly endure from this week is the House's stunning initial rejection of the rescue plan. That vote made clear that the next president will inherit a political crisis to match the economic one: Not only Wall Street but also Washington has melted down. The House's failure to pass the bill revealed a system so poisoned by partisan posturing and so fearful of backlash from the ideological vanguards of each party that it cannot foster consensus even at a moment of genuine national emergency.
Most blame for the initial debacle rests with House Republicans, who voted 2-to-1 against the plan, despite pleas from their congressional leaders, President Bush, and John McCain. In the process, Republicans in the House demonstrated how many of them remain bound in a reflexive antigovernment fundamentalism that precludes them from participating in bipartisan solutions to big challenges.
In that way, the rebellion should send a bracing signal to McCain. Despite all of the applause at the Republican convention for the presidential nominee's "maverick" tendencies, the defiant GOP "no" vote showed how difficult it would be for a President McCain to mobilize House Republicans behind any element of his agenda that challenges conservative orthodoxy, such as his proposal on climate change. McCain's impulsive behavior through the crisis added a different set of concerns about how his presidency might operate.
Obama has been steadier, but the House vote offered stark warnings for him, too. Although three-fifths of Democrats backed the first bill, many in safe districts (including many liberals) did not, because they thought that it insufficiently reflected Democratic priorities. That doesn't inspire optimism about their willingness to follow a President Obama if he decides he can confront major issues -- and fulfill his overarching promise to narrow America's divisions -- only through compromise with Republicans or business interests.
Equally ominous was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pointlessly provocative diatribe against Bush just before Monday's vote. That didn't sink the bill, as Republicans briefly argued, but Pelosi looked small precisely when she needed to grow. One Pelosi ally blamed exhaustion for her eruption but acknowledged that it was partly a response to complaints in her caucus that the bill conceded too much to Republicans. This experience should help Obama recognize that if he wins, his interests as president will not be identical to those of his party's leaders in Congress. Their priority is to find the center of their caucus; as president, his should be to find the center of the country, a very different thing.
After Monday's defeat, Obama and McCain struck suitably constructive notes in urging the parties to reach agreement. Yet each nominee arguably helped to seed the initial failure by relentlessly portraying Washington as a corrupt casino where lobbyists stack the deck against average families. That indictment wildly overstates lobbyists' impact on the country's biggest challenges -- health care or energy or the economy. On those fronts, the greater impediment to progress is ideological rigidity and partisan polarization. But when voters are constantly told by both parties' presidential nominees that Washington is endemically corrupt, is it any wonder that they doubt the plans it produces? This week should show each candidate that he is playing with fire by denigrating so indiscriminately the government he hopes to lead.
From their contrasting ideological perches, liberal and conservative thinkers highlighted flaws in the rescue plan now lurching toward enactment. An ideal plan might have incorporated the best of that analysis and offered more protection for distressed homeowners or less exposure for taxpayers. But a plan entirely acceptable to the Left or the Right could not pass a closely divided Congress and win Bush's signature.
Only a plan that builds out from the center of each party has a realistic chance of becoming law and helping to restore financial security for uneasy American families. Washington's fitful struggle to coalesce around such a plan this week suggests that our political system may be as structurally weakened as our financial markets.
This article appears in the October 4, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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