Santelli: The Hope of Audacity

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

The term chutzpah — a Hebrew term for shameless audacity — is often defined by analogy: it’s like a man who murders his parents and then pleads for leniency because he’s an orphan.  Or it might be like a man who complains about the financial irresponsibility of average citizens while being cheered on by a bunch of derivatives traders.

Im the problem?  No, YOURE the problem!

Rick Santelli: "I'm the problem? No, YOU'RE the problem!"

That man was Rick Santelli, a financial affairs commentator for CNBC, member of the Chicago Board of Trade, and a former executive at Drexel Burnham Lambert, a firm driven into bankruptcy in the 1990s due to financially irresponsible trading in junk bonds.  Santelli, in what has become an anguished cri de cour for the conservative “what, me worry?” crowd, complained on a recent broadcast that the government stimulus package was “promoting bad behavior” by rewarding home buyers who can’t afford their mortgage payments (or, in Santelli’s words, the “losers”).  As Santelli put it:

You know, the new administration’s big on computers and technology– How about this, President and new administration? Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages; or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?

Again, let me point out: Santelli was saying this on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.  Certainly, it was possible for him to find a more ironic location from which to deliver this diatribe (one of the trading rooms at Bear Stearns comes to mind), but probably not one more convenient for his daily commute into the Loop.

Santelli called for a “Chicago Tea Party” in July, presumably because tossing defaulting home buyers into Lake Michigan in February might be mistaken for a gathering of the Polar Bear Club.  His call for a national revolt against the stimulus package has, of course, generated the obligatory web site, with plans in the works now for three “tea parties” in Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles.  Let’s keep in mind, however, that the people who want to organize these protests are some of the same people who, during the Bush administration, couldn’t have been trusted to organize a two-car funeral, so out-of-towners shouldn’t make travel plans just yet.

The conservative commentariat has already anointed Santelli as the Howard Beale of the Obama era.  Larry Kudlow at NRO praised Santelli’s call for a tea party “in support of capitalism,” and expressed bewilderment at “Team Obama’s stubborn refusal to have any faith in the free market.”  Of course, Kudlow wasn’t such a supporter of unbridled free market capitalism when it came to bailing out the banks — even going so far as to call critics of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson’s financial rescue plan “ankle biters” — but then I suppose Rick Santelli can’t be expected to hog all the chutzpah on the right.

More ominously, there have been stirrings among the dittorati to draft Santelli for the soon-to-be vacant Illinois senate seat currently held by Roland Burris, or even as running-mate on a ticket with Sarah Palin in 2012, which is about seven different kinds of crazy.  To be sure, Santelli is only marginally more unqualified than the GOP’s last vice-presidential nominee, and the party’s economic policy has long been unmoored from reality, but there are still some things that are too monstrous to contemplate.  Seriously, you know it’s bad for the Republicans when even David Brooks thinks Santelli is full of crap.

Responding to the uproar generated by this incipient revolt of the derivative-trading pots versus the mortgage-defaulting kettles, Robert Gibbs, the presidential press secretary, has urged Santelli to read the stimulus plan before criticizing its provisions, which seems unfair, given that Santelli would be forced to do something that most members of congress weren’t expected to do.  Still, it’s a start.  Anyway, in the grand scheme of things, Santelli is small potatoes, and I imagine that all of the tea dumped into Lake Michigan this summer won’t be enough to gag a few alewives. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the Obama White House is directly engaging its critics, rather than ceding the airwaves to them or adopting a passive “please sir, may I have another” attitude that the Democrats took during the previous eight years.

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