John Thune Begins Potential 2012 Bid By Skirting TARP Vote

Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) has been making noise about potentially running for president in 2012. In a calmer climate, Thune makes for a credible presidential candidate. However, he carries with him what has turned out to be, in this election cycle, a black mark: he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. As the 2012 field for the GOP nomination shapes up, that would be a pretty unique attribute. What's more, he's previously defended the program to Dave Weigel:

There was a tremendous, broad support in South Dakota among the small business community, the financial community, the South Dakota pension funds, the governor -- there was a tremendous amount of support at the time for taking the steps that we took. I think a lot of people would dispute or take issue with how it was used. But people felt like, even though many disagreed with it, we took the steps necessary to prevent the economy from a complete meltdown.

A week ago, Weigel wondered, "Can he finesse that answer by 2012?" And the answer to that question is: he's sure going to try! Here's Alex Seitz-Wald, last Friday:

One person who might especially wish he could change his vote on TARP is Sen. John Thune (R-SD). Thune is openly considering a White House bid in 2012, and will likely be the only GOP candidate to have voted for TARP -- a serious liability when courting conservative primary voters. Recognizing this danger, Thune has tried to wriggle his way out of the vote. In an interview that will air Sunday on C-Span, Thune claims the Bush administration misled him, and accuses the Obama administration of turning the program into a "political slush fund":

"Pronouncements were made [by the Bush administration] about how it was going to be used. It wasn't used that way. The Obama administration expanded it and turned it into more of what I would characterize as a political slush fund in terms of the many uses of it." [...]

"It was wrong philosophically," Thune said. "How it was used and, in my view, misused is what I take issue with. "

At the time, Thune said, the arguments for TARP were economically "compelling."

"But in retrospect, it might be a different view."

So, he was for it before he was against it, and he now feels like the Bush administration maybe misled him, just a touch? How much is John Kerry's 2004 strategy going for, on eBay?

Thune's attempt at nuance is just slightly out of step with the media zeitgeist, where we've seen a bit of a sub-rosa attempt of late to rehabilitate the TARP. Good news! We might make a profit! Or at the very worst, the program will only cost taxpayers some $50 billion, so everyone should definitely pop some Cristal, right? Well, right on time, we have Gretchen Morgenson smartly pouring cold water on the enthusiasm:

Given the multiple bailouts of 2008, it is to be expected that the line of institutions clamoring to join the cannot-fail party will grow longer. That's the definition of moral hazard -- if you rescue one group, others are sure to want the same treatment and behave in a way that ensures they'll get it. The losses that taxpayers may endure in the next debacle, meanwhile, mount higher.

Regardless of how Thune -- or anybody else, for that matter -- chooses to present their take on TARP, I find myself wondering what might happen if anyone starts asking candidates about how the big banks carted off taxpayer dollars by the bushelful at the Fed window, or how we're supposed to maintain belief in TARP as a cure-all when the true value of the toxic assets on the balance sheets of our zombie banks has yet to be realized, thanks to our new mark-to-fantasy financial regime.

If anyone in the media is still interested in some smart, financial crisis follow-up questions, these are just some ideas I had!

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