Washington struggled Tuesday for a solution for the Wall Street mess but settled on what to blame for the failure of a $700 billion package - the word “bailout.”
Lawmakers argued that it wasn’t so much the size or scope of the package they wrote, but rather that they allowed their giant, complex bill to be boiled down to one pejorative that sunk it.
Now it’s “rescue” to the rescue, as those who want a bill pivoted to the R-word, hoping that will help them win votes in an expected redo later this week.
“Let’s not call it a ‘bailout.’ Let’s call it a ‘rescue’ because it is a rescue. It’s a rescue of Main Street America,” Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain said Tuesday morning on CNN.
He was followed later in the day by White House spokesman Tony Fratto, who said that by using the word bailout, the press had adopted “the language of the critics.”
“I think it’s really unfortunate shorthand for a very complicated issue,” Mr. Fratto said.
“Our critics took the language of a ‘bailout for Wall Street.’ And I think it’s undeniable that the media chose the branding of this debate. … We’re going to continue to communicate on this, and hopefully we can do a better job of making clear just what our goal is, and what we’re trying to fix.”
Financial adviser and radio host Ric Edelman said the Bush administration has mainly itself to blame.
“This is a public-relations disaster that was accidentally prompted by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson when he went to Capitol Hill and used the term ‘$700 billion bailout.’ That moniker stuck. The media used that phrase, and consumers accepted it at face value,” Mr. Edelman said.
“This has been poor use of jargon by policymakers who are used to talking to each other, not the public,” he said.
Never mind that dictionary definitions suggest that “bailout” and “rescue” can be used interchangeably - which is exactly what most newspapers and newscasts have been doing during the past two weeks.
In Tuesday’s headlines, The Washington Times called the $700 billion bill a “historic bailout,” while the New York Times and Wall Street Journal also labeled it a “bailout.” The Washington Post and USA Today both called it a “rescue.”
“I’d hate to be doing PR for the government this week,” said Richard Laermer, a Manhattan-based public relations executive. “All they’re doing is covering their own butt and helping others cover theirs, which is a terrible way to live.”
But, he agreed, “Bailout is a terrible word. It should have been disallowed in any conversation. You want good terminology, not spin.”
Mr. Laermer added that the White House “made a huge mistake not showing the doomsday scenarios with more clarity to the public. The people would have called their congressmen and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be on a bread line.’”
While other Republicans shunned the B-word, the independent expenditure arm of the Republican National Committee used it on Tuesday in a new ad tying the giant package to Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama, for his part, used the word “rescue” six times in a campaign speech in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday. The B-word was nary to be found.
“This is no longer just a Wall Street crisis: It’s an American crisis, and it’s the American economy that needs this rescue plan,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to neutralize the word “bailout” by arguing that the financial mess is really about average consumers and taxpayers, not Wall Street executives.
In a floor speech, the Kentucky Republican highlighted the effects on his constituents, citing a woman who said she might have to sell off part of her family’s farmland and a small-business owner who said the interest rate on his building jumped 400 percent.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the overwhelming opposition that flooded congressional offices over the past week had something to do with the way the plan was characterized.
“If this thing is determined to be a ‘bailout’ versus a ‘rescue’ plan for people at home, it makes a difference how they perceive it,” he said. “When people learn the real consequences of inaction versus a sound bite describing it as a bailout for fat cats, that makes a difference.”
Many conservatives, however, argue that it was not the marketing but the terms of the plan that led to its defeat in the House on Monday.
“The bailout had the support of every power broker and special-interest lobbyist in Washington,” said Richard A. Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com. “It had the support of virtually every fat-cat campaign contributor; it had the support of the mainstream media, who told us ad nauseam that everyone - everyone - supported a bailout.
“Everyone acknowledges something must be done with the financial situation, but the bailout bill was not what Americans wanted,” he said. “After the vote in the House, I looked out my window and the sky had not fallen, so America indeed has yet another day to resolve this mess.”
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