John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Crack That Whip

Posted on September 30, 2008
This originally appeared in The Politico




Watching the House floor on Monday, I was pretty certain that the vote against the $700 billion bailout bill would turn around. In the years when Republicans were in the majority, they were able to get members to think again about how they were voting and change their minds. 

But the vote seemed stuck. Nobody was going into the well to change their vote -- a public signal to colleagues that the leadership was knocking heads and counting votes and seriously pushing the bailout legislation. Nobody. 

I wasn’t in the Chamber, but from what insiders told me, there wasn’t the usual frenzy from the leadership on either side. 

Nancy Pelosi seemed content with her 140 votes, seemingly not realizing that 140 votes and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee in the House of Representatives. 

The Republicans tried to convince their colleagues to do the right thing and vote “aye,” but they hit a wall at 65. They, too, apparently didn’t make any threats or promise any bridges. But it’s hard making threats or promises when you are in the minority. You don’t have much to threaten with and you have absolutely nothing to give. 

The White House was similarly impotent in turning members from either side. Pretty much everybody in the House has already taken a ride on Air Force One, and most members don’t want to go to the Christmas Party anyway. 

The conventional wisdom is that what caused the defeat was a lack of faith in the political leadership. That is true, to a degree. 

But it is also true that on this vote -- and on others -- the whipping process was taken away from the members and put into the hands of outsiders. 

Those outsiders include commentators Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh, and to a certain extent Newt Gingrich. Dobbs and Limbaugh can light up the phone lines more than the President, the Vice President and the Treasury Secretary combined. 
We saw this dynamic last year with the immigration bill. For Dobbs and Limbaugh, it was an amnesty bill, and no matter how much the Senate tried to dispel that notion, the label stuck.





Bashing immigrants seemed like it was the cause of all Americans, and certainly some politicians felt very strongly about it. But when the phones started ringing on Capitol Hill, the Senate “deal” crashed and burned. And in the end, there is no evidence immigration was the winning political issue for Republicans that Dobbs and Limbaugh had them believe. 

It is the same with this so-called “Wall Street Bailout.” Dobbs and Limbaugh fulminated against it, calling it a give-away to crooks, or socialism. And the phones lit-up as Americans, being against both socialism and give-aways to crooks, told their representatives in no uncertain terms that a vote for this piece of “crap,” as one GOP leader famously called it, would mean their political doom. 

The deal collapsed, Wall Street reacted negatively, and the Dow plunged 777 points. And as the market tumbled, the phone lines started ringing again, this time with complaints about the no votes. 

The real-time impact of this legislative failure finally dawned on voters who don’t usually call their representatives. They saw their 401k’s collapse, their mutual funds nose-dive, their stocks sink, and they became livid. 

On Thursday, the House will reconvene and reconsider what it has done. Should the markets continue to tank, it will be the most effective whip for the legislation -- more effective than the Limbaugh-Dobbs team. Should the markets recover, it is hard to see how this passes. 

Of course, the equity market is different from the credit market, a fact that might be lost on most consumers. Let’s face it, in this CNBC world we live in, it is all about equities, not bonds. If the stock market stays stable, it gives consumers a false sense of security. A credit market freeze-up will slowly strangle the economy, but voters are less sensitive to that than they are to the drama of the stock market falling off a cliff. 

A collapsing Dow Jones may be the only thing that can pass this legislative package over the objections of Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh. 

John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.