Sunday, February 15, 2009

Don't Be a Flounder, Mr. Obama

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You may remember the classic 1978 frat-house comedy "Animal House."

In one scene, the new pledge nicknamed "Flounder" has been persuaded by his new fraternity to allow them to take his brother's car on a road trip, in which the car is severely damaged. One of the instigators, known as Otter (played by Tim Matheson) tries to put things in perspective. "Flounder," Otter says, "you can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes! You messed up! You trusted us!"

(He doesn't say "messed" up in the movie, of course; think of this as the network TV version.)

Some days, I can't help but think that Otter grew up to be a Republican pundit. The "Otter Defense," as I've come to call it, has become entrenched as a Republican talking point.

It started during the Iraq war. When it became apparent that the frantic assertions by the Bush administration that we needed to invade Iraq immediately if not sooner because Iraq had WMDs turned out to be dodgy at best, the Republicans were quick to point out that Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, had voted for the war too.

Of course, they conveniently forgot that a large part of the reason for the vote was the cherry-picked intelligence that the administration had fed to them, and to us. Remember Colin Powell with his pictures of real honest-to-gosh chemical weapons bunkers? Remember Dick Cheney's assertion that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction"?

Then, when no WMDs turned up and it began coming out for the first time that there were indeed serious doubts raised about the intelligence, doubts that were never shared with the Congress or with us, the Otter Defense was born: "It's your fault! You believed what we told you!"

And now, as the "bailout" of the financial services industry proves to be something of a dog's breakfast, with reports of CEOs of bailed out companies buying thousand-dollar wastebaskets and executives taking junkets to Vegas and lavish bonuses while running their companies into the ground, the Otter Defense reappears once again.

I have never been any big fan of the Wall Street bailout package. You can look it up. See, for example, my columns of Sept. 28 and Oct. 5. I was, if you remember, concerned about the lack of oversight and skeptical of the claims of companies that said they needed money immediately -- but not if it came with too many strings attached.

I think we're going to get more economic stimulus out of money spent to actually build or repair things. I think we're going to see more bang for bucks that are spent on bricks and mortar and the guys who put one on top of the other than we're ever going to get by buying up complicated and shady "mortgage-backed securities."

But both sides still supported the Wall Street bailout, largely because Bush and his treasury secretary were frantically telling all of us that if Congress didn't vote for this money to be spent right that second, there'd be an immediate financial collapse of Road Warrior proportions.

Now, however, a plan hastily conceived by that same president and treasury secretary and sold to Congress under the threat of imminent financial Armageddon is somehow entirely the fault of the president who inherited it.

And why? He messed up! He trusted Bush! When he called the bailout an "outrage," then said, "But we have no choice. We must act now. Because now that we're in this situation, your jobs, your life savings and the stability of our entire economy are at risk," he was buying into the Bush line. And he was wrong to do so. After all, as Dubbya used to say, "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

So, Mr. President, my advice to you is this: Stop believing the Republicans. From now on, when they say something isn't going to work, remember that these are some of the same people who said the Wall Street bailout would. When they demand concessions, remember that these are the same people who got concessions on the House version of the stimulus package, then voted against the package anyway.

Bipartisanship is nice, but it requires that the other side act in good faith, and these people have showed no signs of doing so. Instead, they've fallen into lockstep behind Rush Limbaugh, who openly says he wants you to fail, and Joe the Plumber, a modern-day Jethro Bodine who's a war correspondent one day and a Republican economic adviser the next. (We look forward to Joe's next gig as a Double Naught Spy, going up to Langley to hold a press conference on intelligence policy.)

Don't be a Flounder, Mr. President. Or someday soon the Republican Otters will be saying once again: "You messed up! You trusted us!"

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