On Sunday, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), enacted late in the Bush administration to prop up the financial system, will expire, having cost taxpayers a fraction of its original $700 billion. The program is now projected to cost less than $50 billion, and could even end up earning a profit as the government sells off assets.
Regardless of its successes, the TARP is extremely unpopular, especially among conservatives and tea party activists. But despite their opposition to the program today, several leading Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), voted for the “reviled mother of all” bailouts. Indeed, “yea” votes helped bring down incumbent Republicans like Sens. Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Bob Bennett (UT) in primaries against tea party-backed right wingers.
One person who might especially wish he could change his vote on TARP is Sen. John Thune (R-SD). Thune is openly considering a White House bid in 2012, and will likely be the only GOP candidate to have voted for TARP — a serious liability when courting conservative primary voters. Recognizing this danger, Thune has tried to wriggle his way out of the vote. In an interview that will air Sunday on C-Span, Thune claims the Bush administration misled him, and accuses the Obama administration of turning the program into a “political slush fund“:
“Pronouncements were made [by the Bush administration] about how it was going to be used. It wasn’t used that way. The Obama administration expanded it and turned it into more of what I would characterize as a political slush fund in terms of the many uses of it.” […]
“It was wrong philosophically,” Thune said. “How it was used and, in my view, misused is what I take issue with. ”
At the time, Thune said, the arguments for TARP were economically “compelling.”
“But in retrospect, it might be a different view.”
Of course, Thune offers no evidence to support his claim that the program has become a “slush fund,” because there is none. His claim that Obama “expanded” the program is equally false. When Obama took office, the program was estimated to cost taxpayers $350 billion. That amount has steadily declined since, and is now projected to cost far less, if it ends up costing anything at all. And the philosophy behind the TARP hasn’t changed, so if it’s “wrong philosophically” today, why wasn’t it then?
As for being misled, Thune sang a different tune as recently as May of this year. In an interview with Slate’s Dave Weigel, Thune gave an enthusiastic defense of TARP, calling it “necessary” and noting that it had “tremendous, broad support”:
There was a tremendous, broad support in South Dakota among the small business community, the financial community, the South Dakota pension funds, the governor — there was a tremendous amount of support at the time for taking the steps that we took. I think a lot of people would dispute or take issue with how it was used. But people felt like, even though many disagreed with it, we took the steps necessary to prevent the economy from a complete meltdown.
While there are certainly legitimate concerns about TARP, Thune’s isn’t one of them. As Matt Yglesias notes, the TARP “looks set to go down in history as one of the most unfairly maligned policy initiatives of all time.” A recent study by two leading economists concluded that without the program, the economy would have 8.5 million fewer jobs than there are now, and that the unemployment rate would exceed 15 percent. But apparently Thune is more interested in appeasing the rabid right-wing base than defending his own vote.
Erick Erickson, editor of the tea party friendly blog Red State, came out swinging against Thune today, calling his potential 2012 bid “toast.” “Let’s be honest…the only reason people talk about him for President is because he’s a good looking guy,” Erickson wrote, but “other than that his greatest accomplishments are doing nothing.” Erickson slammed Thune for not backing tea party Senate candidates, and called the hype surrounding his candidacy a product of the “vapid nature of inside the beltway punditry.”