GOP Presidential Hopefuls: Don't Blame Wall Street

Who was responsible for the economic crisis? At Tuesday's debate, Republican presidential candidates pointed to the federal government and congressional Democrats

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From left to right: Rep. Barney Frank, former senator Chris Dodd, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke

A former senator, a Massachusetts congressman and a professor who was brought into the federal government by former President George W. Bush were the primary targets of the Republican presidential candidates at Tuesday's debate on economic issues.

Despite the populist movement sweeping the country embodied in the tea party and Occupy Wall Street sympathizers protesting on the campus of Dartmouth College, where the debate was held, the financial sector got off easy. And President Obama got relatively few mentions compared to the unlikely trio who became the focus of the GOP contenders' ire.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) architects of last year's financial reform bill, and--most of all--Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke received the brunt of the Republican hopefuls' blame for the flailing economy recovery. An early question about whether Wall Street executives should have gone to jail for the damage they inflicted on the economy quickly morphed into criticism of the environment created by the politicians who, according to the GOP candidates, allowed the country to reach the brink of financial crisis--or failed to walk it back to sturdy ground.

Mitt Romney patronized the president, saying he's over his head on economic issues. Rick Perry attacked, calling the president a "job killer." But just two of the eight candidates mentioned the president in their closing remarks.

Instead, Dodd, Frank, and Bernanke were painted as the embodiment of everything that's wrong with Washington.

Bernanke--a Republican--faced particularly harsh criticism. Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul each said they didn't support Bernanke's actions as Fed chair. Gingrich called him "disastrous."

Romney took care to separate Bernanke from former President George W. Bush and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson when he said the 2008 bailout was necessary to prevent a complete meltdown of the financial system. "No one likes the idea of a Wall Street bailout," Romney said when asked about the actions taken by the three men. But Bush and Paulson's actions were necessary to stop the downward spiral of the economy, Romney said. He pointedly did not name Bernanke, and he said he would not reappoint him.

Gingrich said the U.S. wasn't any better prepared for an economic crisis because the same people who helmed the last are still in charge. But none of the candidates offered a plausible alternative when asked who they would rather have steering the economy as Fed chair or presidential advisors.

Jon Huntsman said his father, a septugenarian entrepreneur, would give the best advice. "I wish we could find Milton Friedman again," Romney said of the celebrated conservative economist who died in 2006 at age 94. Cain said 85-year-old Alan Greenspan, who retired as head of the Federal Reserve in 2006, was the most successful chairman in recent years, and added that he has identified two candidates "waiting in the wings" to lead the central bank, but refused to name them when pressed.

Equally surprising was that some candidates didn't rule out another bailout if the economy takes a turn for the worse. Asked what he would do if the euro crisis deteriorated and the U.S. and global financial system seemed to be on the brink of meltdown, Romney said he "would take action to keep that from happening."

The candidates may come off as tone-deaf to a population frustrated with Wall Street's seeming ability to avoid punishment, again and again, while continuing to engage in many of the same behaviors that got the U.S. into the crisis in the first place. "Virtually every American has a reason to be angry," Gingrich said. Yet voters would have been hard-pressed to find that anger reflected Tuesday on the debate stage at Dartmouth College.

Image credit: Alex Brandon/AP (Frank), Liz Lynch/National Journal (Dodd), Chet Susslin/National Journal (Bernanke)

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Catherine Hollander is a staff reporter (economy and budget) for National Journal.

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