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Deal suffered from a lack of sales savvy, experts say

The crisis was poorly defined, they contend, letting foes frame the plan as a giveaway.

October 01, 2008|David Colker and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

It was one thing for the government to draft a plan to get financial institutions out of trouble -- and quite another to sell it.

Administration officials and congressional leaders violated the most basic rules of politics, marketing and public relations in peddling the controversial $700-billion financial system rescue.

Leaders of some of Washington's most powerful political interest groups -- including business, labor and civil rights organizations -- said that instead of starting out by organizing a broad-based coalition to build bipartisan support and mounting a grass-roots campaign to explain the crisis to Main Street, administration and congressional leaders focused on reassuring Wall Street.

The result was a vacuum that gave opponents time to portray the plan as a giveaway to rich bankers and investors. Congress was swamped with calls, e-mails and letters from angry constituents.

In addition, critics say, President Bush waited too long to throw the full weight of his office behind the plan.

"In the real world, nobody thought about how to sell this thing," complained Rick Hohlt, a lobbyist for banking and other interests who is active at the upper echelons of the GOP.

Even folks who might have supported the proposal as a way to get the economy back on track were alienated by how it was presented.

"The first step should have been to show outrage over the gross irregularities of financial institutions," USC marketing professor Lars Perner said. "That might have tipped the scales more in favor of the plan."

Wall Street, for its part, was happy to hear that as much as $700 billion in toxic investments was going to be taken away.

But much of the rest of the country didn't feel empathy for high-living Wall Street bankers, and that helped spawn use of the word experts say may have helped doom the plan in early consideration: bailout.

The administration never called the proposal a bailout, but the B-word had already gotten vigorous exercise with expensive federal moves to shore up mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurance firm American International Group Inc.

It was quickly adopted by politicians, the public and reporters. The first question asked Sunday of Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson by Tom Brokaw on NBC's "Meet the Press" included the line "You're talking about a $500-billion- to $1-trillion bailout of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities."

"Bailout" can be a killer in the political realm.

"That word suggests that someone is guilty and getting away with something," said Dominique Hanssens, a marketing professor at the UCLA Anderson Graduate School of Management. "You have to head that off from the beginning."

Even worse, the word can have criminal connotations.

"It can bring up the idea of getting a criminal out of jail, as in 'bail,' " Perner said.

Perner said the administration should have seen "bailout" coming. He said that President Bush, in his Sept. 19 address on the crisis, could have helped shape the debate by using the word first, perhaps with a phrase along the lines of " . . . rather than being a bailout."

"Then it could have been framed in a more positive way," he said, "by saying something like, 'This is to preserve the stability of the banking system.' "

Professors aren't the only ones urging a bailout blackout. Appearing Tuesday on CNN, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain said, "The first thing I'd do is say, 'Let's not call it a bailout. Let's call it a rescue.' "

Different word choices may have helped, but a lack of consensus building was a fatal flaw, Washington insiders said.

Treasury officials thought that winning support from a bipartisan group of congressional leaders was enough to ensure bipartisan majorities in Congress. But Hohlt, along with some members of Congress and advocates for labor and consumer groups, said more was needed.

Many potential supporters were not briefed or given what they considered sufficient opportunity to make policy suggestions. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus deserted the leadership. Labor unions in particular felt that they were ignored.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, for example, was never consulted by the administration, according to labor union officials. Sweeney knows Secretary Paulson and has been called by him in the past.

The Treasury Department conducted conference calls with members of the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups, while ignoring labor. Sweeney on Monday released a statement outlining his criticisms of the bill without specifically stating opposition.

At the Laborers International Union, President Terence O'Sullivan said Tuesday that "a bailout alone is not the solution to every problem. Congress is hopefully getting the message that the true foundation of our economy is more than just Wall Street financiers."

One lobbyist advocating the rescue proposal faulted Bush for not reaching out to national interest groups to help educate the public.

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