Repudiating George W. Bush

We may have witnessed the final implosion of the Bush administration with the rejection of the president’s $700 billion bailout package.

Repudiation doesn’t come much stronger than having 133 House Republicans ignore President Bush’s plea that "our entire economy is in danger" if the bailout didn’t pass. Brushing aside also the pleas of the administration’s two top economic spokesmen, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Republicans provided the bulk of the 228 "no" votes.

The market went into a 700-point-plus swan dive, sending those who voted against the package scurrying for political cover. Some immediately blamed a harsh, partisan speech by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the measure’s failure, but it’s hard to believe that any clear-thinking lawmaker would put the nation’s credit markets at risk because of hurt feelings.

The problem with the bailout package was that it was a hard sell, and Paulson has not done a particularly good job of selling it, emphasizing its importance to the arcane financial instruments of Wall Street rather than its impact on Main Street. The measure was easy to demagogue as a bailout of the fat cats who precipitated this whole crisis, a view that the administration clumsily seemed to reinforce when it sought, vainly, to protect executive pay perks. But a continued collapse of the credit markets could dry up even more mortgages, plus auto loans, student loans and consumer credit. Then, in the president’s words, we are in for "a long and painful recession."

House Republicans did no favors for their presidential candidate, John McCain, who made a great show of "suspending" his campaign to return to Washington, where he implausibly claimed to have been instrumental in brokering a compromise.

In the shocked aftermath of the vote, Bush met with his economic advisers and House leaders huddled over how to revive all or part of the plan. Pelosi insisted, "What happened today cannot stand." It might force another vote if the markets go into free fall, but it’s clear that no one in Washington — certainly not the president — has the moral authority or political capital to ram the bailout through.

Paulson said that passage was essential and that the alternative is worse. And that alternative is, he said, a continuing series of financial-institution failure and frozen credit markets that threaten the financial well-being of American families and businesses and "the very health of our economy."

We’ll soon find out.