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The Wall Street 'bailout' that isn't

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: GOP leaders called Democrats' financial regulation bill a "bailout"
  • Borger: Political move failed because it's neither taxpayer-funded nor a bailout
  • Also, she writes, GOP leaders found many Republicans want financial reform
  • Americans want government to rein in Wall Street, Borger says

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union" as well as participating in special event coverage.

(CNN) -- When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell decided last week to portray the Democratic version of financial regulation as a Wall Street "bailout," it seemed like a brilliant, albeit cynical, political move.

What do the voters hate even more than Wall Street? Bailouts. What's the perfect way to combine their antagonism for big banks with their distaste for taxpayer-funded bailouts? Accuse the Democrats of bailing out the banks. Perfect.

A good political move in theory, only it didn't work. First, the outcry was over a "bailout" that wasn't. Granted, there is some money in the bill -- $50 billion -- but it's provided by the banks, not the taxpayers. And it's not there to bail out banks, it's to help the sick ones die properly without creating a panic. "Paying for the funeral" is the way Treasury sources describe it.

Republicans complain it would "open the door" to future taxpayer-funded bailouts. Really? "The notion is wrong," said Elizabeth Warren, who runs congressional oversight of bank bailouts. "At the end of what McConnell calls a bailout, the company is dead."

And get this: When the GOP leadership hatched this idea, it found more than a handful of Republicans -- and not just the usual moderate suspects -- who actually want to vote for financial reform. In fact, the difference between Wall Street reform and, say, health care reform, is that "there truly is a group of us who will hold our side's feet to the fire" to get a bill, one Senate Republican told me.

So when McConnell got all his Republicans to sign a measure to force more negotiations before bringing the bill to the floor, some were with him with a strong caveat: They would not threaten to filibuster a bill they think the country needs. Period.

And then there's the presidential X-factor: With health care, President Obama didn't actively engage until late in the game. This time, though, lesson learned: The president is out there. "This one's easier," senior White House adviser David Axelrod tells me. "Our goal is to be as aggressive as possible." Hence a trip Thursday to the lion's den on Wall Street where he's not going to make nice.

And one more thing. He's not going to let Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid write this bill. Been there, done that.

So have the Republicans. And it worked once, on health care, which is still not popular with the American people. But financial reform is different. Voters want it done. In most cases, the supply of government exceeds the demand for it. In fact, a slew of recent polls show that only about 20 percent of the people trust the government to do the right thing. But even so, a majority of folks actually want the government to intervene to fix Wall Street's excesses.

In other words, the banks are so out of control that even the inept government needs to step in and do something.

So it's no surprise that, after some public chest-thumping, the sides are reported to be back at the negotiating table. Truth is, they never left. Serious senators concerned with reform had always been working on it -- but quietly, for months. The GOP leadership takes credit for moving the process along. They may have lit a fire, that's true, but under the Democrats, who were not about to cave.

Negotiate, yes. But kill the bill? Not a chance.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.