The TARP Test

Almost completely ignored thus far in the Republican presidential race are the candidates' positions on the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program.  In many ways, TARP is the best measure we have for what kind of president each candidate could become.  Any candidate can dub himself  a free-marketeer during a Republican primary, but when political pressures are intense, we learn the difference between campaign rhetoric and what a candidate actually believes.

Examining TARP also gives voters a reason to reevaluate (and possibly change or add to) the Republican race's top tier.  Both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney's actions at the height of the 2008 banking crisis raise warnings about how each might govern in times of trouble.

First we'll go back to October 1, 2008.  That morning, Governor Perry released a letter, co-signed by Democratic Governor Joe Manchin, urging D.C. lawmakers "to leave partisanship at the door" and "pass an economic recovery package."

The Perry-Manchin letter came three days after TARP failed to pass the House by a vote of 228-205.  Moments after the vote, an exasperated House Minority Leader John Boehner spoke to reporters.  He blamed the failed vote on Speaker Nancy Pelosi highly partisan speech, delivered just before the roll call.  Boehner said the speech "poisoned [the Republican] conference" and "caused a number of members that we thought we could get, to go south."

The Bush Administration and the media predicted financial ruin if the House Republicans and Democrats failed to work out their issues with the bill.

Three days later, The Senate scheduled a vote on TARP.  That morning, riding to the bi-partisan rescue, came Perry and Manchin. "There is a time for partisanship and there is a time for getting things done," lectured the two governors.

Media outlets, including the Associated Press, hailed the letter as a bi-partisan endorsement of TARP. The Fort Worth Star Telegram, in Perry's back yard, even ran the headline, "Perry joins with Democrat to push for bailout."

Perry has since denied he wanted the bailout to pass, but it's not difficult to see why media and politicians alike saw the Perry-Manchin letter as pro-TARP.  The governors stressed bi-partisanship just days after partisan fighting derailed the first vote in the House, the letter was sent on the day of the Senate vote, and most obvious was the fact that Congress was not meaningfully considering any other proposals.

Later on October 1, Perry released a statement, purportedly to clarify his position.  Perry stated that "in a free market economy, government should not be in the business of using taxpayer dollars to bailout corporate America."  This seemingly categorical denunciation of the bill was followed by this sentence: "Congress needs to take off its partisan gloves and work together to bring both short and long term stability to the credit markets."  Obviously hedging his political bets, Perry might as well have said "I'm against bailouts, now pass the bailout bill."

Far from seeing Perry's stance as a principled defense of free markets, the Austin American-Statesmen believed Perry's taxpayer bailout reference was an early salvo of the Texas Republican gubernatorial primary.  The target was future opponent and pro-TARP Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison.

At best, we would have to describe Perry's TARP position as wobbly.  A position that isn't exactly comforting in 2011 America, where we see far too much "wobble" from Republican Party leaders.  At worst Perry's actions suggest he took one position as an office holder (pro-TARP as President of the Republican Governors Association) and the opposite position as a candidate (pro-market while seeking to win over conservative-minded Texas primary voters).

Mitt Romney's TARP position is more easily defined and more worrisome.  According to Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis, Romney supported the bank bailout in 2008.  Since then, Romney has repeatedly defended the program as necessary to save the nation from cascading bank failures and financial collapse.

But data from the Federal Reserve makes the sky-was-falling argument virtually indefensible.  For example, Citigroup was one of the largest recipients of bailout funds, adding $45 billion to their balance sheets via TARP.  In the months before and after the bailout, Federal Reserve lent Citigroup $2 trillion.  Are we really to believe that without the meager 2.25% in additional loans from TARP, Citgroup or other banks in similar situations would have met some catastrophic end?

After his defense of TARP's spurious beginnings, Romney criticizes the way the program grew throughout its implementation, which sounds strikingly similar to his defense of his health care plan. TARP and RomneyCare encapsulate the technocrat's fatal flaw.  No matter how competent and well-meaning an elected official may be, an incompetent and malevolent leader will eventually and inevitably follow.  To dramatically increase government power based on the supposed skill of a temporary office holder is a sentence of bureaucratic imprisonment in the not too distant future.

Certainly Perry and Romney are not Barack Obama when it comes to growing government, but both have shown a willingness disregard or hedge on their free-market principles in when under intense political pressure. Voters would be well served to ask themselves if their preferred candidate will make the right decision when future TARPs inevitably come.

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