GOP bailing on bailout supporters

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) has served six terms during two stints in Congress. When South Carolina Republicans held their runoff Tuesday, he managed to win just 29 percent of the vote.

Elsewhere on the ballot, Inglis’ colleague Rep. Gresham Barrett didn’t fare much better. Once the front-runner in the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Barrett lost to upstart Nikki Haley by an eye-popping 30-point margin.

Still, Inglis and Barrett were the lucky ones, relatively speaking. In Utah’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate that same day, three-term GOP Sen. Bob Bennett didn’t even make it on the ballot. He was eliminated in the voting at the Republican state convention earlier this year.

What do these three defeated Republicans all have in common, besides their impending unemployment? All three of them voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), which is Washington-speak for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout that was rushed into law when the panicky political class decided to “do something” about the financial meltdown.

TARP was a bipartisan initiative. In the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain supported it. The leaders of both parties ended up voting for it. George W. Bush signed it into law. Since then, both the Bush and Obama Treasury departments have spread the wealth around.

But TARP was never particularly popular with rank-and-file Republicans, particularly grassroots conservatives. Many anti-Wall Street progressives and deficit-conscious moderates also had serious misgivings about the bailout. And when the bailouts continued after TARP, the program began to symbolize the big-government Republicanism of the Bush era.

In making a clean break with that brand of Republicanism, fiscal conservatives from the Tea Party activists to the Club for Growth have targeted wayward GOPers who succumbed to the TARP temptation — a group that unfortunately includes such stanch conservatives as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). Wobblier Republicans who went along with the bailout, beware.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn was booed for his TARP vote while speaking to a Tea Party gathering in Texas. A Republican activist in Tennessee refused to shake GOP gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp’s hand because Wamp had voted for the bailout in the House. For some, the bailout is the litmus test issue.

In the Republican primary for Senate in Kentucky, Secretary of State Trey Grayson — the GOP establishment candidate — tried every one of the old litmus test issues: abortion, the war in Iraq, and the party’s post-9/11 foreign policy more generally. He still came up well short against Rand Paul, who ran primarily as an anti-bailout candidate. TARP trumped the Bush Doctrine.

In Nevada’s race to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Republican front-runner Sue Lowden was excoriated by her opponents for comments they characterized as being sympathetic to the bailouts. She hit back by insisting she was in fact anti-bailout, but to no avail: the more fiscally conservative Sharron Angle exploded from the single digits to win the primary.

The anti-bailout backlash hasn’t prevailed everywhere. Rep. John Boozman, the Republican nominee for Senate in Arkansas, voted for TARP but won his primary. Ditto Rep. Mark Kirk, the GOP senatorial candidate. They are considered two of the party’s brightest prospects for gaining Senate seats this fall.

But all other things being equal, a vote for TARP is a political loser in Republican primaries — and a huge gift to conservative challengers. Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth may have voted for No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, but he is making McCain’s support for TARP an issue in their Arizona contest. The Republicans running against former Sen. Dan Coats in Indiana also tried to tie him to the bailouts.

It is too early to say that big-government Republicans are on the ropes. But they are looking for someone to bail them out. Here’s some advice: Don’t hide under a TARP.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.