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Bailout's success justified my vote, Bennett says

Published October 1, 2010 6:48 pm

TARP • The program, which is officially closing Monday, ended up costing taxpayers closer to $50B than $700B.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Sen. Bob Bennett might be justified in sending a four-word e-mail to all 3,000 Utah GOP delegates: "I told you so."

About five months since delegates denied Bennett the GOP nomination, in part for his support of the so-called bank bailout, the program is about to come to its official close Monday.

The total cost to taxpayers, according to new estimates, is far less than the original $700 billion price tag.

Bennett faced sharp criticism from fellow Republicans in Utah for backing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and lost his re-election bid to some detractors shouting, "TARP, TARP, TARP."

But the White House is now saying that the program — including an auto industry bailout that Bennett opposed — may now cost taxpayers about $50 billion. And that's down even from the $66 billion the Congressional Budget Office estimated in August thanks to a $16 billion profit the government made off bank stocks.

For his part, Bennett doesn't plan to send an e-mail or parade around pointing out that TARP wasn't a bad deal in the end. But he's glad to be able to back up that argument when asked.

"I loved the blogger this morning … who said the tea party owes Senator Bennett an apology," Bennett said Friday in a Tribune interview. But he knows that's never going to happen.

"There are no apologies in competitive politics," said the outgoing three-term senator.

Bennett always believed history would bear him out on his vote — just not so soon.

"I did try saying during the campaign that TARP was going to pay the money back and that that … was not going to cost the taxpayer anything. Apparently nobody believed me. Or if they did, they decided to vote against me anyway."

Douglas Elliot, a former managing director at JPMorgan Chase and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, echoes many economists in saying the TARP vote was crucial in avoiding a severe financial meltdown that could have driven the country into a much worse recession.

"The public should actually love the TARP, but they don't and they never will, partly because it is incredibly hard to believe that helping bankers was actually good for ordinary people, too," Elliott said.

Bennett doesn't want to venture into the hypothetical of whether he would have kept his job had the projections for the final TARP bill had been out in February or March, when he was fighting for his political life.

"I have no idea," he said. "There are so many factors that go into a race like that. I don't think any one could be singled out as the real reason you lost."

David Kirkham, who has organized several tea party rallies in Utah and who saw Bennett's TARP support as a catalyst for his ouster, says he still views Bennett's vote as wrong.

"I think that anytime government steps in — in that sort of way — incredible sums of money are lost," Kirkham says. "I think $50 billion is still three times the entire [Utah] state budget."

Without TARP, he believes, the stock market wouldn't have plunged and the economy would have recovered more quickly.

tburr@sltrib.com

Geithner: TARP, unfairly smeared, 'was necessary'

Economists largely agree that the massive federal bailouts beginning in 2008 saved the country from a financial abyss. But rarely has a government program become so widely reviled, so stigmatized, that even lawmakers who voted for it avoid the subject.

"It wasn't fair," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said of the bailouts. "But it was necessary."

The Washington Post