'It is universal, this outrage'



For weeks I've been skeptical that the naysaying Senate Republicans would try to block financial reform, and thus tag themselves as the party of Wall Street - not exactly the smartest political move these days, given the fact that most Americans rightly hate Wall Street. Yet that has appeared to be their posture lately, as evidenced by GOP leader Mitch McConnell's false attacks on the financial reform package (recounted here last Thursday) - attacks so empirically absurd that they have even been denounced by Republican senators Bob Corker and Judd Gregg as "silly" and "over the top."

Yet, quite suddenly, McConnell now seems calmer. Yesterday he urged all senators to "come together...and leave aside all the name-calling and second-guessing." Other Republicans who have leaned toward voting No on financial reform are now saying that surely a deal with the Democrats is doable with all deliberate speed. So what's changed? Perhaps it's due to a reading of the tea leaves. According to a new Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans favor tougher federal regulations of "Wall Street banks," while only 36 percent oppose.

To reiterate: Given the current public mood, Republicans would be well advised not to climb into the sack with the same greedy visigoths who drove our economy to the brink of ruin.

This very issue arose back on April 8, during a public forum at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where I hosted writer Michael Lewis. He, of course, is the author of The Big Short, the current bestseller that chronicles the (mis)adventures of the Wall Streeters who made a bundle off the subprime mortgage fiasco.

During our long conversation on stage, I asked Lewis for an assessment of the current political climate, and the likelihood that Washington might pass substantive reforms that ideally would curb the worst of Wall Street's rapacious abuses. His reply:

"We have an emboldened financial sector trying to influence the reform bills - and, on the other hand, we've got a population that is furious with Wall Street. The amazing thing about this book tour I've been on? I've been in front of thousands and thousands of people - and no one has stood up to defend Wall Street. And I feel kind of badly. It's so one-sided, that I feel myself defending it sometimes. Because I'm outflanked by my audience! They're more outraged than even I intend them to be! And it is universal, this outrage. So this outrage will find some sort of political expression."

It was clear that Lewis didn't expect the Senate Republicans to buck this "universal" outrage by standing up for Wall Street. The "political expression" of this outrage is evidenced in that new Gallup poll. (Indeed, the Republicans - even while assailing the Democratic reform efforts - have shied away from threatening a filibuster that would block any floor debate on the issue. Debate is expected to begin late this week.)

Lewis wasn't quite finished, however. The rest of his voluble response is also worth a read - if only because, hey, after all, he's Michael Lewis:

"I recently spoke to a House Republican book group. I should first explain that the House Republicans have a book group. That is not to poke fun at them. The woman who runs it called up and said, 'You can actually assign one of your books, and they will actually read it.' In this group, there are 40 or 50 Republicans, and their staffs. Instead of a book, I had them read a little magazine article...something I wrote for Portfolio in December 2008. It was my first attempt to explain the crisis. And it was a very funny experience (with the House Republicans). They were inquisitive. The ones who spoke with me were outraged. This whole notion of a financial sector where people are rewarded whether they succeed or fail? It really bothered them that all these people got rich....

"So it's a weird and unsustainable situation right now, and something is gonna give. I will say this, that if you look at the (legislative and political) process with frustration, just be aware that democracy always moves kinda slowly - that in 1929, after the crash, it took four years before we got Glass-Steagall (the basic federal reforms that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and curbed rampant speculation). It took a good three years before we got proper hearings on Capitol Hill, explaining to the population what had happened. So in many ways it's our great good fortune that democracy moves slowly...It's not surprising that (reform) takes time. It always takes time."

Me: "Is this a great country, or what?"