THE PERSIAN Gulf and budget crises have a side benefit for President Bush: They take voters' minds off savings and loans.
Not that Bush perpetrated this swindle, though he led the cheers for the deregulation frenzy that made it possible. Members of Congress from both parties pitched in to facilitate the heist. The Reagan raj's overall reverence for greed was its most important ingredient.
A sitting president is blamed for whatever goes wrong on his watch, however, and the thrift debacle will be with us throughout Bush's tenure. As the seamy details trickle out, resentment will swell.
A study by the Charlotte-based Southern Finance Project confirms, for example, that the depositors being bailed out with our tax money in large part are $100,000 accounts peddled by brokers, not the mites of widows and orphans. One-third of the accounts as of 1989 were for $80,000 or more.
The sick S&Ls had fewer single-family house loans than did healthy ones, erasing the fiction that at least the mess eased the housing shortage. In truth, it had no redeeming features. Just a bald, hot-money rip-off to enrich fast-buck crooks at the expense of the rest of us.
The thrift scam's "poster boy," Neil Bush, exemplifies the problem. His defenders claim he's been unfairly singled out because of his daddy. That's true. It's also true his rise to the Silverado board was not due to his financial genius. Even the loans (one actually a gift) and investment booty lavished on him by his associates who bilked Silverado owed much to the fact his father was then vice president. The loose way he profited from his family fame says a good bit about the price inflation of political influence under Reagan.
All of which heightens the perception that we have a government of unfair privilege, with the GOP in particular at the beck of the wealthy. The budget fiasco contributes by worsening the tax imbalance that favors upper- and punishes middle-income brackets.
Congressional Democrats have been willing accomplices. Indeed, in the S&L stink, they were out front. As the cost of electioneering soared, many mortgaged themselves to big-money interests. Most voted with Reagan to slash tax rates on the rich and shift the burden to Social Security levies falling mainly on those who make less than $50,000.
As a result, working people feel, quite correctly, that they are not represented in Washington. Passionately cynical about the process, they call down a plague on both houses.
Republicans will find it impossible to break out of this stereotype. The rich are their logical constituency. You can't conjure a more authentic trustee of the country club set than Bush himself.
A populist Democrat, if there's one hiding out there, could tap this political lode. Is the party capable of seizing such an 'N opportunity or so atrophied that the nation will linger in a political wasteland until some catastrophe wakes it? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, the S&L mess will rot away through years of sordid revelations. Whatever else, a nagging reminder, making the political system's overall bankruptcy somewhat harder to ignore.