In Washington, it's a showdown between the representatives of Wall Street and the representatives of Main Street. But have you noticed that the old partisan alliances are reversed? It's the Democrats who are now the Wall Street Party. And Republicans -- with the conspicuous exception of President Bush -- are now the Main Street Party.
Consider: President Bush proposed the $700 billion plan; after days of hiding behind the Secretary of Goldman Sachs, Henry Paulson, Bush finally emerged from the sidelines Wednesday night to tout the plan in prime time. Just this morning, he spoke again in favor of his plan, while again taking no questions from pesky reporters.
But the Congressional Democrats, who mostly despise Bush, are also mostly for the Bush plan. Sure, they made some cosmetic changes in the bailout proposal, but they have never wavered in their basic endorsement.
So who's against the plan? It's Congressional Republicans who are getting in the way. They are the heroes of the hour. Although outnumbered, these brave Capitol Hill GOPers have stopped official Washington in its tracks. Why? Because the Democratic majority, supporting the bailout, doesn't actually dare to vote for it unless they know that most Republicans will vote for it, too. And that's because the Democrats fear that this bailout legislation is deeply unpopular with the country. So the only way that Democrats can vote for the bill and be safe this November is if Republicans also put their names on the legislative dotted line. Not a profile in courage for Democrats, of course, but it's smart practical politics for them to demand some "cover."
But let's step back a minute. How did it come to pass that President Bush is siding with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? What thought process led the administration to support a big-government bill that the Republican grassroots all despise? Bush, of course, never met a Cheney-esque secret plan that he didn't like. And it would also seem that seven-and-three-quarters years in office have totally disconnected him from rank-and-file Republicans. Remember his support for the ill-fated immigration "amnesty" bill back in 2004? And after that misguided legislation was beaten back, he proposed it again in 2007. What was he thinking?
For their part, the Democrats are emerging as the new party of the rich, the party of Wall Street, the party that champions financiers at the expense of producers. For years now, the most affluent precincts in the country -- mostly on the two coasts -- have been solidly Democratic. And in 2008, the polls show that upper-income voters mostly support Barack Obama. And Obama, of course, guided by the likes of Robert Rubin, has been quietly supportive of the deal. Indeed, Obama personally epitomizes the Democrats' new political arrangement: He was raised mostly poor, then worked mostly with the poor, but now he is rich and works mostly with the rich -- his campaign is a well-financed corporation. Yet he has maintained his popularity with the poor. For their part, the Republicans now represent the majority of middle-income voters -- Main Street. But the Democrats, with their political pincer movement, from the rich above and the poor below, have the clear electoral advantage in 2008.
So it's understandable that the Democrats would want to take care of "their" people at the top. That's the revised Democratic model: The same old socialism for the poor, of course, in the form of the bureaucratic welfare state, and a new kind of socialism for the rich, in the form of this bailout.
In addition, the Democrats have some sordid secrets to protect -- and Paulson & Co. are helping them keep hidden. Much of the overall financial crisis can be traced back to bad mortgages made to unqualified buyers at the behest of Democratic poverty advocates; it was a neat arrangement, poor Democrats got houses, as rich Democrats got richer by manipulating the financial paper. But the Bush administration, eager for a deal with the Democrats, has made it clear that it won't point fingers. For their part, Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) are returning the favor by pushing the bill forward.
So only Congressional Republicans -- the single most implacable figure being Sen. Richard Shelby, the Rock of Alabama -- are taking a firm stance against this monstrosity. They even seem to have brought along John McCain, who has taken various positions on the bailout over the last few weeks. But bravo for the Congressional Republicans. After years of embarrassments and scandals, the Capitol Hill GOP has rediscovered principle and honor. And so rediscovered the glory of genuinely representing the people, against the powerful.
I am reminded of Aragorn's Battle Speech at the Black Gate in the third of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The King tells his outnumbered troops:
"I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day!
This day we fight!!
By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!"
And so, in the Tolkien story, the Men of the West are triumphant. But today, in the real world, could the Republican Men and Women of Capitol Hill yet prevail? The Washington DC conventional wisdom, as of Friday, is that the Bush Administration/Democratic/Wall Street juggernaut will eventually bring the Congressional GOP to heel. If so, that would be the final victory of Wall Street over Main Street.
But maybe not. Maybe ordinary people will win this epic struggle.