The Politics of Blame

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

It should have been easy for Democrats to connect depleted 401(k) accounts and lost home equity with the buccaneers of Wall Street who supposedly prompted the panic.

The public, after all, has been whipped up in furor at the masters of the universe who bankrupted portfolios as they walked away with multimillion-dollar bonuses. We now hate those on Wall Street as much as we used to like them for bringing spectacular growth to our retirement accounts.

In a recent private meeting with some of the world’s largest bankers, President Obama reportedly railed at them: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks!”

But not so fast, Mr. President.

The Obama administration, remember, signed the Democratic-sponsored bill to authorize new bailouts for Wall Street firms and mega-bonuses for their executives. And during the Clinton administration, Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers — who both later made millions on Wall Street — succeeded in freeing investment banks from federal regulations that eventually led to their reckless gambling with trillions in sub-prime mortgage debt.

The quasi-government-run Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage agencies — staffed with ex-Clinton administration cronies — were at Ground Zero of the financial meltdown. Liberals in Congress like Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank were among the largest recipients of Wall Street money. In the 2008 presidential campaign, most of the big investor money went to Democratic candidate Obama.

Billionaire investors like Warren Buffet and George Soros proved to be among Obama’s staunchest supporters. Health and Human Services Cabinet-nominee Tom Daschle had to bow out because he skipped paying income taxes on free corporate limousine service. Democrats are clearly no longer the party of dirt farmers in bib overalls and sweaty dockworkers.

Can fiscally conservative Republicans pull off the feat of galvanizing populist backlash against fat-cat Democrats and their supporters on Wall Street? Looking at some of President Obama’s initiatives, you’d think conservatives would have plenty of ammunition.

Obama’s promises to tax only those families making above $250,000 will probably prove a fantasy, given the proposed $1.7 trillion annual budget deficit and the nearly $10 trillion in additional debt that we are projected to incur over the next decade.

There simply are not enough wealthy to tax to pay back that sum. Instead, most likely our children and grandchildren for generations, through all sorts of higher taxes, will have to service the mountain of debt and interest for the larger entitlements we’ll soon receive.

Shouldn’t this kind of out-of-control spending and big government be natural wedge issues for conservatives against free-spending liberals?

But, again, not so fast, as conservatives have credibility problems of their own.

The last Bush administration budget racked up a $500 billion annual deficit and added more than $4 trillion to the national debt over eight years of governance. During the first Bush term, when the Republicans controlled Congress, government spending grew on average at an annual rate of over 4 percent — far higher than during the previous Democratic Clinton administration.

Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress may be planning unheard of multitrillion-dollar budgets, but they are in fact only expanding on earlier Republican fiscal recklessness.

You know we live in strange times when it’s hard to figure out whether to blame big money or big government.

In the past, Democratic populists could rail against the Wall Street excess that had helped to wreck Americans’ retirement portfolios. These populist Democrats, though, are gone, replaced by liberal grandees who are more interested in the money of Wall Street than its ethics.

Today’s Democratic-led government, meanwhile, has gone on a spending spree, taking on massive debt for all sorts of new “stimulus” — and Republican conservatives, given their recent profligate past, can hardly serve as credible watchdogs.

So, take your pick whom to blame: not-so liberal Democrats, now trashing the Wall Street that enriched them, or not-so conservative Republicans, suddenly railing against Washington’s out-of-control budgets that they themselves had never balanced.

In a democracy that chooses its own leaders, maybe the real problem is ourselves — for wanting big government without big taxes, big stock returns without big risk and easy money without hard work.

©2009 Tribune Media Services

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