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Is Tom Coburn a Closet Progressive?

I ask because Coburn, the Oklahoma senator who is generally regarded as a staunch conservative, voted yesterday to block the distribution of the $350 billion that represented the second half of the TARP bailout of the financial services industry. Coburn had originally voted to approve the bailout in October.

It wasn’t just Coburn, by the way. Evan Bayh, Bob Bennett, Kit Bond, Richard Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Susan Collins, John Ensign, Linsday Graham, Chuck Grassley, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Johnny Isakson, Blanche Lincoln, Mel Martinez, John McCain, Mitch McConnell, Ben Nelson, Arlen Specter and John Thune have all seen the light and switched from a pro-bailout to anti-bailout position.

Conversely, senators like Barbara Boxer, John Kerry and Tom Harkin, previously believed to be progressives, voted to approve the bailout money, and are all evidently a bunch of sellouts:

So what we’ve learned is that lots of our new senators – even those who campaigned as populists – are already under the spell of “the most exclusive club in the world.” And frankly, I don’t care what their public explanations are. These are people who made airtight declarations against the bailout on a conceptual level – and then walked away from those declarations when it came time to vote. We’ve learned (once again) that if there’s not constant pressure on lawmakers to respect the most basic campaign declarations they made, they will sell us out.


The reason, of course, that Coburn and the other 18 senators changed their stance on the bailout is not because of any underlying change in philosophy but because of political opportunism. The Obama administration has now inherited the burden of the bailout package from the Bush administration; as such, it is easier for Republicans to oppose it. Likewise, it is harder for Democrats like Jeff Merkely and the Udall Cousins, who railed against the bailout on the campaign trail, to vote to oppose it.

The bailout, undoubtedly, is highly unpopular. Getting to run a commercial that accuses your opponent of having voted for “a $700 billion giveaway to Wall Street” is the sort of stuff that can win you an election.

But does the fact that the optics of the bailout are poor mean that it is poor policy? Does it mean, moreover, that opposing the bailout is the right “progressive” policy stance?

On the contrary, the fact that the Republican and Democratic positions on the bailout appear to be so fluid would seem to indicate that it not an issue particularly well described by traditional ideological frameworks like liberal versus conservative. Either the bailout is a necessary evil to get the economy moving again — a goal that benefits progressives and conservatives alike — or it isn’t. This is largely an empirical question rather than an ideological one.

There is a certain “progressive” paradigm in which corporations are inherently evil, and anything that benefits corporations in any way is evil. I’ve never particularly understood this, because I assume that moral agency rests within individuals, and corporations are not individuals, even if we tend to anthropomorphise them. Perhaps an individual that runs a corporation can be evil, but the corporation itself is not evil. Perhaps an individual that runs a corporation can be greedy, but the corporation itself is not greedy. By the same token, whether a particular policy benefits a corporation or not is immaterial, and matters only insofar as that benefit is passed on (or not) to particular individuals.

I don’t know exactly which individuals wind up better off in the world where the bailout passes versus the world where it doesn’t; spending $700 billion in public funds is not such a great thing; neither are failed banks and foreclosed homes. But a lot of the progressives who are complaining about the bailout don’t know very much about it either.

There is a separate issue here, obviously, concerning hypocrisy. If a Jeff Merkley campaigns against the bailout and then later votes to approve it, he has probably been hypocritical, and I have no problem with people criticizing him for that.

But which is more likely: that Jeff Merkley, a lifelong progressive, was instantly transformed into an evil corporate zombie the very moment that he took his seat in the Senate? Or that he had been campaigning against the bailout because it was a politically convenient position for him to take? Conversely, is Tom Coburn no longer under the “spell” of corporate America? Or did he perceive an opportunity for demagoguery in his own bid for re-election in 2010?

EDIT: I have no problem whatsoever if people want to criticize the oversight positions of the bailout (or, more specifically, their absence). Nor do I have any problem whatsoever if people want to advance legitimate economic arguments the bailout, of which there are assuredly a great many. But a certain percentage of the more “philosophical” arguments made against the bailout are, in my view, short-sighted and demagogic.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.