Voting against the bill -- against putting taxpayers' money at risk in order to clean up a mess that some people got rich by making -- was easy, but not necessarily wrong. The $700 billion figure exaggerated the plan's probable cost, but accurately measured something worse -- the enormous enlargement of government's power.
So the joint declaration by John McCain and Barack Obama that Congress should "rise above politics" was mere gas. The legislation touched elemental questions -- the meaning of justice, the parameters of freedom and the proper functions of government. Democrats charge that the crisis is market failure arising from an insufficiency of government, in the form of regulation. Well.
Suppose that in 1979 the government had not engineered the first bailout of Chrysler (it, Ford and GM are about to get $25 billion in subsidized loans). Might there have been a more sober approach to risk throughout corporate America?
Suppose there had never been implicit government backing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Better yet, suppose those two had never existed -- there was homeownership before them, just not at a level that the government thought proper. Absent Fannie and Freddie -- absent government manipulation of the housing market -- would there have developed the excessive diversion of capital into the housing stock?
The rising generation of thoughtful Republicans was represented on both sides of Monday's vote. Virginia's Eric Cantor, 45, and Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, 38, supported the legislation because they had helped to achieve substantial improvements in it, such as requiring financial institutions to help finance their bailout, giving the Treasury potentially valuable equity in firms revived by public funds, and eliminating a slush fund for Democratic activists. Texas' Jeb Hensarling, 51, and Indiana's Mike Pence, 49, voted against what they considered a rescue model fundamentally flawed because (in Hensarling's words) it "could permanently and fundamentally change the role of government."
It is potentially catastrophic that this crisis comes in the context of a closely contested election and a collapse of presidential authority. Congress should disconnect from a public that cannot be blamed for being more furious about than comprehending of this opaque debacle. The public wanted catharsis, and respect for its center-right principles, and got both with Monday's House vote. It still needs protection against obliteration of the financial system.