WASHINGTON -- The day after an election is perhaps the moment of greatest candor among the political class, especially when those doing the talking are set to leave office in a matter of months. So it was a bit surprising, though not terribly jarring, to see on Wednesday morning a duo of retiring House Democrats offer up some of the most impassioned defenses of the bank bailout to date.
Speaking at a breakfast organized by the National Journal, Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) insisted that Republicans have been wrong to demonize the TARP, arguing that the intervention into the financial system was required to avoid a "catastrophic" collapse.
"The TARP happened under George Bush's watch in response to a crisis that occurred under George Bush's watch," said the Washington Democrat. "Had we not done the TARP, we would have seen global economic collapse. Now the TARP could have been done better but virtually every economist in this country will tell you had it not been for the TARP, catastrophic collapse. People lost their seats, including Republicans like Bob Bennett for the TARP. Now we've got the stimulus. I believe the stimulus wasn't crafted well. But in part that's because a vast portion of it went to tax cuts that did not generate jobs or infrastructure... but had we not done the stimulus the unemployment level would have been much higher. A lot of people got penalized last night for doing, at least, something. Perhaps not perfect."
Sitting alongside him on the panel was Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), another exiting Democrat whose seat will soon be occupied by a Republican. Reflecting on the votes he cast during the height of the economic crisis, he concurred. "I think TARP and the stimulus demonstrates that people don't appreciate what you stopped them from having to endure. So that was the problem there."
Even the Republicans on the panel offered sympathies for TARP, though it is worth noting that those who spoke out also were removed from public office.
"I voted for TARP," said former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). "I have got to tell you, [Sen.] Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was forced into a runoff after voting for TARP. The vote for TARP was bipartisan and I have no doubt it was the right vote. Saxby said he probably lost 100,000 votes by voting for TARP."
There have been plenty of lawmakers who have defended the bank bailout -- mostly along the philosophical lines that Baird and Gordon offered on Wednesday. But the election cycle had a remarkable way of keeping those defenses largely sporadic or muted. There was a political price to pay for being aligned to a bank bailout. When polls asked voters who they blamed for the state of the economy, 34 percent responded: "Bankers." Of those who blamed bankers, Republicans held an 11-point advantage over Democrats.