Did election pressure cause candidates to bail on bailout?

Udall and Schaffer debate on leadership

By Chris Bragg

Democratic Rep. Mark Udall voted twice against the financial rescue package that finally passed Congress Oct. 3. His opponent in the race for the U.S. Senate, Republican former congressman Bob Schaffer, says he probably would have voted against the bill, too.

Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce held a U.S. Senate debate on business issues Tuesday. From left to right, Joe Blake, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, Democratic Senate candidate Mark Udall, and retired Denver Post Capitol Bureau chief and debate moderator Fred Brown. Tuesday’s debate had a far more civil tone than previous encounters between Udall and Schaffer.

Udall and Schaffer are typical of congressional candidates involved in competitive races, most of whom took stands against the unpopular $700 billion package, which many constituents saw as a rescue for Wall Street that neglected Main Street.

Among 38 House members who face congressional races listed as a “toss-up” or “lean” by the Swing State Project, which monitors tight races around the country, 30 voted against the bailout in the first vote on the bill Sept. 29, according to an analysis of the roll call votes.

That means only 21.1 percent of House members in competitive races voted in favor of the measure.

Contrast that with the votes of members who are not running for re-election in the House. Of the 31 members in that situation — six Democrats and 25 Republicans — 23 voted “yes” on the bailout.

In other words, 74.2 percent of the U.S. representatives who had nothing to lose voted in favor of the bill.

And, if one excludes from that tally the four House members leaving in order to run for statewide office — three of whom who are running for the U.S. Senate, including Udall, and one who is running for governor — the rate of retiring House members voting in favor of the bailout jumps to 81.5 percent.

That’s a 60 percent swing between those running for re-election in competitive districts and those who are retiring. In other words, electoral circumstances were largely predictive of votes on the bailout package.

“That would be my interpretation,” said pollster Floyd Ciruli, of Ciruli Associates. “It was like, ‘You had to eat your peas, but you didn’t really like them.’ The bill had to be passed, but people running for re-election didn’t want to be the ones to vote for it. They considered that, on balance, it was a loser for them — a net negative.”

When the bill eventually passed on Oct. 3, public opinion had softened somewhat, after various “sweeteners” were added and the stock market plunged. There were 58 more “yes” votes the second time around. The bill passed comfortably by a margin of 263 to 171.

As for those 38 votes in swing districts, six House members — three Democrats and three Republicans — changed their votes from “no” to “yes.” That was a vote-flipping rate of 15.7 percent — slightly above 13.3 percent overall rate of flipping votes from “no” to “yes” in the House.

Notably, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-CD 4, whose race is listed a “toss up” by the Swing State Project voted “no” on the bill both times.

Ciruli said a “yes” from Musgrave could have hurt her with conservatives. Meanwhile, Ciruli said a “yes” vote from Udall could have resulted, at the least, in a negative campaign ad from Schaffer.

Of course, Musgrave, Udall and Schaffer offered what they said were compelling reasons for their stances on the package.

In a conference call with reporters a few minutes after the Oct. 3 passage of the bailout bill, Udall said that it didn’t do enough to give relief to homeowners facing foreclosure, didn’t offer “airtight protection” against “golden parachutes” for CEOs, didn’t have an outside leader like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, billionaire Warren Buffet or oilman T. Boone Pickens to oversee Treasury spending and didn’t do anything to “fix the broken financial system.”

Udall said electoral politics did not play a role in his vote, and that he would take the heat no matter how he voted.

“It was almost easier to look at what truly would make for the best package,” he said.

Schaffer said in a debate held by the Denver Chamber of Commerce last Tuesday that he probably would have voted against the bill because it didn’t cut spending and there “needed to be a serious effort on belt-tightening in Congress.” Schaffer said, in a rare moment of agreement with Udall, that he opposed the $150 billion in “sweeteners” put into the second version of the bailout to induce members of Congress to change their votes.

Musgrave, meanwhile, told Lou Dobbs of CNN that the revised bailout package was “absolutely ridiculous.”

“I kept my re-election totally out of my mind when I took the stand on this bill,” she said. “I was out there with a ‘no’ before I got lobbied by anybody, any calls coming into my office, because the plan was fatally flawed.”

Still, the overall trend of electoral politics affecting the bailout vote raised a question at the Tuesday debate between Udall and Schaffer.

One member of the Denver Metro Chamber posed the following question: When should elected officials listen to the overwhelming will of their constituents, and when should they simply vote their conscience?

In his response, Udall quoted political theorist Edmund Burke, who said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment,” in guiding him to do what was right, rather than what was popular. As examples, Udall mentioned his votes against authorizing the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.

Schaffer retorted, meanwhile, that voters probably would disagree with Udall’s votes to spend $8 billion on a “Department of Peace,” and to support oil and gas drilling in Cuba.

“But I commend you,” Schaffer said sarcastically.

As for his overall philosophy on bucking public opinion, Schaffer offered a view similar to Udall’s.

“We live in a constitutional republic,” said Schaffer. “We elect people at election time to make powerful and important decisions for us.”

Schaffer said if there’s time, however, he prefers rallying the public on his side — by holding town hall meetings and connecting with constituents through the media — before making a tough vote.

“The crucial test, though, is at election time,” Schaffer said. “That’s when voters are in charge.”

Which must be why such noble views of public service can be superseded when Election Day is only a month away.


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