Lost Leaders

Posted September 30, 2008 at 1:43pm

A crisis of confidence in world financial markets may cascade into a Great Recession or worse. But every bit as profound a crisis of confidence exists among the American people toward their leaders in Washington, D.C., who again on Monday proved unable to solve the country’s most urgent problems.

It’s a familiar, bipartisan pattern.

The national government has consistently failed to address the long-term entitlement burden that threatens the country’s fiscal future.

This year, despite surging gasoline prices, Congress has failed to pass effective energy legislation, with even widely popular tax breaks for renewable fuels facing possible death.

Usually, failure results from differences among party leaders. This failure was different, and maybe more dangerous. This time, it was the result of massive public distrust in national leaders.

All such leaders — in the executive branch, Congress and the Federal Reserve — favored the $700 billion rescue package hammered out last weekend. So did the two presidential candidates, although they were less decisive about it than they might have been.

But public opinion was decisively opposed and a majority of House Members yielded to that opinion and rejected the package. The result was a $1 trillion loss on the stock market in a single day — with who knows what to follow.

It did not help matters that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) found it necessary to depart from her prepared floor remarks to indulge in partisan shots against Republicans before urging that the parties come together to pass the package.

But that did not defeat the measure, as Republican leaders charged. They could not deliver more than 65 votes. And, because the GOP did not come through, Pelosi and her lieutenants did not apply the whip to Democrats, either, allowing 95 to vote against the rescue.

Fundamentally, this was a rank-and-file revolt against the Congressional leadership of both parties.

In some cases, conservatives and liberals were willing to risk predicted economic ruin to uphold their ideologies.

But many Members, inundated with e-mails and phone calls from citizens furious at the idea that Washington would “bail out” Wall Street, were terrified of their constituents and the possibility that their opponents would use a “yes” vote against them over the next month on the campaign trail.

Leaders, from President Bush on down, tried to make the case that this was not simply a Wall Street bailout but an attempt to rescue local banks and businesses, homes, college loans and jobs. The public either didn’t understand the consequences or didn’t believe what their leaders were telling them.

It’s a lack of confidence richly earned by both Republicans and Democrats for failing time and again to cross party lines and solve problems.

The only way for Congress to regain the public’s trust is to regroup later this week and find a way to avoid an economic collapse. Just imagine what voters will think of Washington if they fail yet again — this time, catastrophically.