WASHINGTON -- The bailing out of U.S. banks in the fall of 2008 represents one of the most controversial government interventions in modern history. Multiple books have been written about those harrowing days. Debates -- still without end -- were sparked over the structuring of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. An entire political movement found its roots in that moment.
And yet, for all the consequence of that policy, some of the leading candidates for president this cycle have largely ducked it. That seems remarkable considering their conservative credentials and the time in which they came to office. But searches on Lexis-Nexis, Google, website archives and files from opposition researchers turned up largely blank for Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.). Even aides to a few of them admitted surprise that there wasn’t much of a public record.
Eventually, The Huffington Post was able to ascertain that all three opposed bailing out the banks, some more forcefully than others. None as forcefully as, say, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who publicly accused his primary opponent of opportunistic lying by saying he was anti-TARP.
But the fact that the issue was so thoroughly sidestepped suggests that even the GOP's conservative stalwarts don't see it as such a surefire political winner. That seems likely to be even more the case when one considers the amount of fundraising they all will be doing with financial industry sources. And that may bode well for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
The brother of the president who initiated the TARP, Bush is the only candidate in the "top tier" of the Republican primary who has publicly supported the policy.
“I think, given the circumstances of the potential for a meltdown that would have been hard to recover, some support was appropriate,” he told a congressional panel in 2012. Later, Bush added, “I would argue that maybe enforcement was where the problem was, not the fact that we had a deregulated financial industry. So, for a short-term solution to a problem that had global implications, I think that was probably the right thing to do.”
Bush aides note that he wasn’t endorsing TARP so much as calling it an imperfect short-term fix to a problem with no good solution. Recent history suggests this type of nuance can survive a GOP primary. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination while reluctantly backing the TARP.
But Bush may well end up alone when it comes to the TARP. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who announced her candidacy on Monday, has also accepted the necessity of the bailout, though she was also quite critical of the policy's implementation. But she is a long shot for the nomination. Absent her, there are few others who said something vaguely supportive of the bank bailout, if they talked about it at all.
Cruz's office, for example, could not find a past comments from him on the TARP. His aides were surprised by the absence and attributed it to the fact that basically everyone knew where he stood and didn't feel the need to ask. To be sure, they passed along a comment from him, in which he offered full-throated opposition.
"I unequivocally oppose bailouts that reward big banks and corporations at the expense of American taxpayers," Cruz said. "I personally opposed the bailouts when they began in 2009, I opposed them in my Senate race, and oppose them today.”
The one comment The Huffington Post was able to locate from Walker came during a Fox News interview on January 19, 2011, and it doesn't exactly address the TARP itself. Walker was asked if he believed the federal government should bail out states -- one of those hypothetical questions asked during the dog days of the recovery -- and he replied: "absolutely not." Only after that did he suggest the bank bailout was a mistake.
"I think we ran into troubles when the federal government tried to come in and bail out companies that were supposedly too big to fail," Walker said. "If you bail people out, we see that even with some of the larger companies, they fail to make the long-term decisions that will correct these legacy costs."
Repeated attempts to get a fuller answer from Walker's political action committee went unreturned. His office was the only one who refused to provide assistance or comment.
Rubio's record on the bank bailout is a bit more complicated. The Florida Republican spoke in favor of canceling the TARP during his primary campaign in 2010 and he called for taking unspent money from the program to pay down the federal debt. As for whether it should have been passed in the first place, however, Rubio said very little. The one accessible comment found by The Huffington Post was from a July 27, 2009, town hall event, when he was asked whether the United States should "ever be owners, or part owners or have controlling interest of any company?"
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"No," he replied. "And it is simple to say that. I would have said yes if I believed the government would willingly part with it when the time is right. The reality is we know it is not going to happen. Once a government bureaucracy gets its hands on an industry or an enterprise it is very difficult to pry loose. The second concern I have is many of these companies failed by their own hand. Now what does that mean? It means two things. Number one, the money you pour into them all you are doing is delaying their failure. And the second thing that it means is that you are privatizing their risk… you are making profits private but losses, public."
Rubio's campaign confirmed the comment as him being opposed to the bank bailout. But they declined to address whether his predictions of endless government ownership ended up being true.
In strictly financial terms, the TARP has been more of a success than its critics (or even some of its supporters) initially envisioned. Of the $427.4 billion disbursed, $441.7 billion was recovered, according to the Treasury Department (other reports with different methodology don't rate the return as successfully).
The government has taken a loss on the auto companies. Of the $79.6 billion disbursed, $70.4 billion was recovered. The Congressional Budget Office has projected the loss to be even greater. But even so, it's quite clear that federal officials, contra Rubio's prediction, did get out of the auto industry, having sold its last shares in General Motors in 2013.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting to this story.