Campaigns/Elections

The (Diminishing) Return of Pandering

Politicians keep doling out giveaways to a public that increasingly doesn't want any.

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In a political season simply oozing hope, change, and historical firsts, here's something that might actually be encouraging: a widening gulf between promised election-year giveaways and the expressed desires of the populace on the receiving end. Has shameless political pandering become one more item on the long list of services Washington can't deliver?

This year's combination of costly interventions and pork-barreling has not deviated from the classical script for Washington largess. If people are paying more than they used to for gas, the tradition goes, the federal government is supposed to get in there and make prices go down, preferably through a gas tax "holiday" like the one proposed by presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and John McCain. If real estate prices are falling and deadbeat mortgagees are being kicked back into the rental economy, the government must stand athwart the market yelling "Stop!" Food prices up? Pass a farm bill extending subsidies for farmers in order to lock in those prices while…uh, giving out food stamps to prevent tortilla riots?

What's out of character this year is the mounting evidence that American voters are not showing much interest in these quack remedies. As Clinton and McCain treated drivers to both glad-handing and creeping Anglophilia (in America we take gas tax "vacations," thank you) by offering to lift the 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax during the summer driving season, voters themselves said no. According to a national Rasmussen Reports poll, a majority of respondents either opposed or weren't sure about the tax break. The idea never had majority support, and local polling throughout the spring primaries showed even stronger opposition.

Leave aside the case against a federal gasoline tax in the first place. Lifting it this summer as a one-time benefit or stimulus is practically a caricature of the contemptuous solicitousness with which Washington treats ordinary Americans, the equivalent of kissing the booboo of drivers who have seen gas prices nearly double over the past three years. If climate change is your thing, the proposal is particularly galling: A government that was truly serious about reducing carbon emissions, or for that matter curing America's "addiction" to foreign oil (causes to which McCain and Clinton both pay lip service), would make every effort not to shield consumers from the rising costs of fossil fuels.

Through lack of public support (or common sense), that gas tax vacances ended up going nowhere. The same could not be said, alas, for this year's pork-larded, $307 billion farm bill, which seemed to gain more traction as it grew less popular. Americans have been against farm subsidies for years, to the tune of 70 to 80 percent opposition. In that stance, they are for once supported by the mainstream media, which generally give negative grades to agricultural subsidies and were strongly opposed to this year's handout. The bill, ironically if accurately described as "politically popular," sailed into law, with the House and Senate voting 316-108 and 82-13, respectively—more than enough to override a presidential veto.

In terms of pressing its affections on an unwilling public, however, the farm bill had nothing on the heavily panting mortgage bailout bill—sorry, the Federal Housing Finance Regulatory Reform Act of 2008. This piece of legislation won the hearts of Congress, the presidential candidates, and, after some soul-searching, President Bush himself, while leaving the citizenry strangely unmoved. Throughout the first half of this year, assorted versions of the bill were concocted with the goal of delivering assistance to distressed homeowners, but doing so narrowly enough to avoid infuriating voters. We were told, among other things, that Americans wanted a bill that didn't bail out banks, reward "speculative" home buyers, or give unfair help to players in the mortgage-backed securities market.

The one version of this wooly tale for which there was actually some evidence: Americans never wanted a mortgage bailout of any kind. In March Rasmussen found that Americans opposed bailing out homeowners by nearly a 2-to-1 margin (53 percent to 29 percent), and were even more strongly opposed to bailouts for lenders. (To be fair, Gallup around the same time managed to get a 56-42 percent majority in support of "having the federal government take steps to prevent people from losing their homes," with no elaboration of what the steps were—an important data point given the "voluntary" refinancing efforts Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was urging at the time.) In May, during consideration of a mortgage-rescue bill sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told the L.A. Times that his constituent mail was running "50 to 1: 'Don't bail these people out.'?"

Is McCarthy just another aloof Republican? For his sake I hope not: His district, Bakersfield, ranks eighth nationwide in the number of foreclosure filings per household, according to the foreclosure-tracking company RealtyTrac. Now this great country is not lacking in areas that have been designated "foreclosure epicenters." Yet even in Bakersfield, which may actually deserve that title, bailout supporters are as rare as hens' teeth. So who is for this thing?

That would be, first, the media, which have repeatedly expressed shock at the "surprising amount of opposition" to a mortgage rescue (The New York Times, in December), hoped that the housing crisis might "overcome bailout resistance in both parties and the public" (financial columnist Lou Barnes, in March), and puzzled over the "curious coalition opposed to a state rescue for mortgage borrowers" (Financial Times, in April). And second, the politicians: As of this writing, some version of the bailout plan appears likely to reach the president's desk and receive his signature.

The American majority, on this handout and others, appears to hold very different views. Unfortunately, that distributed sense of fiscal responsibility doesn't count for much against the concentrated strength of lobbyists, media buttinskis, and politicians who don't want to get fired for not looking busy. But hey, a guy can dream. I mean, it's not possible for democratically elected officials to go on thwarting the will of the people forever, is it?

Tim Cavanaugh is Web editor of the L.A. Times's editorial pages.