America to Washington: We don't trust you to fix the problem, we suspect you may have caused it.
The failure of the first bailout bill was an epic repudiation of the Washington leadership class by the American people. Two weeks ago the president of the United States, the speaker of the House, the secretary of the Treasury and the leadership of both parties in Congress came forward and announced that the economy was in crisis and a federal bill to solve it urgently needed. The powers were in agreement, the stars aligned, it was going to happen.
And then the phones began to ring, from one end of Capitol Hill to the other. And the message in those calls was, essentially: We don't trust you to fix the problem, we suspect you may have caused it. Go away.
It was an epic snub, aimed at both parties. And the bill tanked.
We have simply, as a nation, never had a moment like this, in which the American people voted such a stunning no-confidence in America's leaders in a time of real and present danger. The fate of the second bill is unclear as I write, but the fact that it has morphed from three pages to roughly 450, and is festooned with favors, will do nothing to allay public suspicions about the trustworthiness of Congress. This, as a background, could not have helped Mr. Biden.
We have never seen an economic meltdown like this? We've never seen a presidential meltdown like this. George W. Bush's weakness is not all lame-duckship. In the last year of his presidency Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow and helped change the world. In the penultimate year of his presidency, Bill Clinton sent U.S. troops, successfully, into Kosovo.
After the first bailout failed, Mr. Bush spoke like a man who was a mere commentator, not the leader in a crisis.
We witness here a great political lesson. When you are president, it matters—it really matters—that a majority of the people support and respect you. When you squander that affection, you lose more than mere popularity. You lose the ability to lead when your country is in crisis. This is a terrible loss, and a dangerous one, for the whole world is watching.
Young aides to Reagan used to grouse, late in his second term, that he had high popularity levels, that popularity was capital, and that he should spend it more freely on potential breakthroughs of this kind or that. But Reagan and the men around him were wiser. They spent when they had to and were otherwise prudent. (Is there a larger lesson here?) They were not daring when they didn't have to be. They knew presidential popularity is a jewel to be protected, and to be burnished when possible, because without it you can do nothing. Without the support and trust of the people you cannot move, cannot command. You are left, like Mr. Bush, talking to an empty room.