Former Rep. Bob Inglis has seen this movie before. The economy racing toward calamity. Time running out to save it. A massive stimulus bill pitched as the only way to avert catastrophe, but the politics around it less certain.
In the South Carolina Republican’s case, it was the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, the $787 billion rescue package that passed in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. The message to Congress then was as clear as the one coming from the White House today as the coronavirus threatens the physical and financial health of the nation: Vote for the massive spending bill or watch the American economy go up in flames.
“It was just really bad at the time, we had to do something,” Inglis said in a phone interview Tuesday. He remembered local community bankers imploring him to support the bill, warning him ATMs could fail by that Monday morning. Other trusted advisers warned the entire banking system could collapse if he voted no. “All the people with pitchforks downtown were saying, ‘Burn it down, tear it up.’ But I remember knowing I just had to do it,” he recalled.
The “people with the pitchforks” were local tea party activists, who railed against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, embedded in the bank rescue. They quickly dubbed Inglis “Bailout Bob” after the vote.
Two years later, the tea partiers backed Inglis’ GOP primary opponent, county solicitor Trey Gowdy, who defeated him in a runoff by a landslide. Inglis’s good friend and fellow Republican, Rep. Gresham Barrett, suffered a similar fate. Although Barrett had been the front-runner in his race for South Carolina governor, his eventual support for TARP served as powerful ammunition in the Republican primary, which Barrett lost to a lesser-known state representative named Nikki Haley.
The trend repeated itself across the country. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter switched to the Democrats over the ensuing furor, only to see his seat end up with Republican Pat Toomey. In Utah, GOP Sen. Bob Bennett lost the party nod for renomination to Mike Lee, now the state’s senior senator. Bennett was also dubbed “Bailout Bob” for voting for the 2008 stimulus and was sent packing by activists.
Standing by his vote
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy now to see how TARP later came to be viewed as an unfair life raft for Wall Street bankers. The financial industry that enabled the crash went on to dizzying highs, while many of the middle-class Americans hurt in the crisis never fully recovered. Ironically, many of the people who won their seats on the anti-TARP furor seem poised to support a much larger stimulus now.
But Inglis stands by the legislation: “That was rational policy. It makes sense when your economy is nose-diving to spend some money that can be borrowed at under 1 percent.”
To Inglis’ point, TARP performed largely as planned — buying up toxic assets from the companies that could survive, in order to resell them after the market stabilized. The government actually made money off the program. Likewise, the auto bailout that President George W. Bush later added on to the stimulus package did in fact save the American automakers that were poised not only to collapse, but to take the entire Midwest down with them.
If the policy itself was mostly sound, the politics of TARP only got worse with time and distance.
“Republicans were hearing from the tea party that we should have let the banks collapse, that we should have a ‘good depression’ to clean things out,” Inglis said. “What they didn't realize was the retribution they were trying to visit on some unseen banker was actually going to fall on their own heads.”
As many congressional veterans can tell you — the most politically perilous votes are sometimes the easiest to call, even if they serve up the toughest consequences later. It seems to have been that kind of vote for Inglis.
“What a miserable person it is who gets to the end of a congressional career, and they hand you your nameplate, and you go home and look in the mirror and you realize you stood for nothing,” he said. “So it was time to take a risk, and to try to save the banking system. It wasn’t a hard decision, really.”
Out of a nosedive
Inglis said he sees a similar dynamic at play on the policy front for the stimulus Congress has in front of it, with a chance to keep the economy from a deep, painful recession at a cost of low-interest debt, not unlike the 2008 plan.
“If you’re going to try to affect the trajectory of the plane, you want to pull it up as quickly as you can. We’ll figure out if we’re going east or west once we get out of the nosedive,” he said.
Inglis is now the executive director of a conservative think tank focused on solving the climate crisis, which is as against-the-grain of Trump-infused Republican politics now as Inglis himself was in relation to the tea party that came for his seat in 2010. His son is an emergency room physician in San Francisco, working on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis in one of the worst-hit areas in the country.
Inglis has some advice for members considering their votes on the stimulus or other measures they may need to take in the coming weeks and months as this generation of leaders looks for a way through the crisis.
“Try not to consider the political consequences,” he said. “Do what’s best. Lead with courage. Because at the end of the day, once you leave Congress, you’ll see there’s something worse than losing your seat in Congress. It’s losing your soul. Do the right thing.”
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.