The onus of the bonus

By Ronald M. Horvath | Apr 28, 2010

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” No, I’m not talking about Sarah Palin but thanks for thinking it. Actually, in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" the queen’s line implies a certain disingenuousness on the part of an actor in her son’s play. She is being sarcastic, or perhaps ironic. Shakespeare’s words, since their writing, have become a catchphrase for either over acting or the false emotion that hides a secret motivation. (You see how you could make the mistake, right?)

And the political scene of late -- or for the past year in fact -- has been filled with over zealous acting on the part of those whose false indignation barely covers the motivation behind it all. Here we are in the early days of spring and it already feels like the crazy, but not lazy, days of summer.

Foremost in the news, and the ranks of the indignant, has been Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Senate minority leader, the putty-faced, gravel-voiced defender of conservative myth and would-be populist who last week came out swinging against the new banking reform bill. Having recently met with “25 Wall Street executives and hedge fund managers” one has to wonder whether he was lecturing them on honesty in finance or reassuring them of his continued loyalty, especially in respect to the news that the financial sector has decided to switch their own loyalty -- in the form of campaign contributions -- from the Democrats to the Republicans. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has even claimed to visit New York twice a month to take advantage of Wall Street’s “buyers remorse” over their former support of Democrats.

McConnell, sensing that the time was right to stake a claim on the bankers’ largess, obviously thought to take up arms against banking reform where the fight against health care ended. He and other Republicans have even resorted to the same rhetoric of misinformation from the same Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, who created the language of “death panels” and “government takeover” for the fight against health care reform. They seem to have missed the fact that they lost that fight, perhaps because of their deliberate twisting of the truth, and that a change in method might be called for.

Indeed the debate over banking reform began as a rerun of the confrontation over health care, with 1,500 lobbyists, not to mention bank executives, fighting their way into the Senate Agriculture Committee where the battle began, and whose members have received $22.8 million in this election cycle from financial, insurance and real estate companies, “two and a half times what they received from agricultural donors," according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And so we were treated to the spectacle of Senate Minority Leader McConnell, in his best pose of indignation, claiming that the bill "actually guarantees future bailouts of Wall Street banks ... endless taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street banks."

This, of course, was phony populism at its most mediocre and the Democrats were instantly almost beside themselves at seeing the Republicans defending the voters’ most hated villains in the recession scenario. By fixating on one aspect of the banking reform bill -- the $50 billion bailout fund (which will actually be funded by the banks) -- McConnell was attempting to draw the public’s attention away from the new rules and regulations that would protect the economy from the kind of unprincipled and unethical behavior that led to our current difficulties. He was exploiting popular opinion about the bailout to protect the very bankers who were bailed out after laying waste to the economy and betraying the popular trust in the hopes that they would now pour some of that bailout money into Republican coffers.

The onslaught of condemnation was immediate. The president himself set the record straight by referring to “the cynical and deceptive assertion that reform would somehow enable future bailouts -- when he knows that it would do just the opposite.”

Even McConnell's hometown newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, got into the act by reminding him in an editorial that he voted for the original bailout. The writer went on to accuse him of "unabashedly courting Wall Street bankers for political money" and being "happy to scratch their backs if they'll scratch his."

Maine’s own Republicans have been less than receptive, or even inattentive. "I did not hear Sen. McConnell's speech on the floor," said Sen. Susan Collins. "I didn't hear his characterization," said Sen. Olympia Snowe.

This all had its effect. McConnell, sensing a lost battle and the failure of his populist pose, has now “softened” his criticism. He may see a tactical retreat as being the wisest course. It has to be hard for Republicans to spread fear and loathing about using tax dollars for bank bailouts when the public sees those same banks pouring those same dollars into Republican campaign coffers.

So, has the steam run out of the Republican train to nowhere? Has the solid front of the party of no begun to crack? One political victory usually leads to another and the Obama administration has already begun to move on to immigration since a “nonpartisan” banking reform bill is now expected shortly. "Folks on our side of the aisle want a bill," admitted Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee.

Where will the bankers invest their campaign funds now, I wonder? Perhaps the new rules and regulations governing their behavior in the market place will solve the problem for them. By being forced to run a tighter ship they might not have to worry about the wretchedness of their excess, or the onus of their bonus.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.


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