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Where's the GOP's Rick Santelli?

Where's the GOP's Rick Santelli?

By Michael Smerconish - February 26, 2009

CANTOR. Boehner. McConnell. Pence.

They're the ones who are supposed to articulate the position of the loyal opposition. Instead it's a guy named Santelli, and unlike these members of Congress, he has no portfolio.

Still, he did something none of the 178 House Republicans who voted against the stimulus package were able to: Give a voice to individuals who refuse to get on board with the president.

Last Thursday, news outlets detailed President Obama's plan to help homeowners stave off foreclosure while providing billions' worth of financial backing to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The day's headlines hit on the hefty price tag: "Housing Bailout at $275 Billion" reported the Wall Street Journal, while "$275 Billion Plan Seeks to Address Crisis in Housing" led the front page of the New York Times.

That's also the day we met Rick Santelli.

Since 1999, Santelli has been providing CNBC with financial reports from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Last week, he launched a rant that immediately made headlines of its own.

"The government is promoting bad behavior," Santelli said of the president's plan, and suggested a referendum to decide whether to "subsidize the losers' mortgages" or reward "people who can carry the water instead of drink the water." The folks behind him cheered as he asked: "President Obama, are you listening?" A few hours later, Santelli's picture was headlining the Drudge Report.

Santelli told me that he regretted using the phrase "losers' mortgages," even though it accurately encapsulated what he wanted to say. "This is more about the people I bump into every day, whether it's on the train, in restaurants, outside walking around . . . Chicago. I think that there's a silent majority, maybe up to 90 percent, that are doing everything right. And I think they need to be treated more fairly," he said.

The next day, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs shot back: "I would encourage him to read the president's plan and understand that it will help millions of people, many of whom he knows. I'd be more than happy to have him come here and read it. I'd be happy to buy him a cup of coffee, decaf."

That Santelli - hardly a household name - caused the stir he did is telling. Especially considering that all but three Republicans in Congress opposed the stimulus plan. Not one of them attracted the kind of attention the CNBC contributor did. Not even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's address to Congress stirred such commotion.

I don't think that attention is totally attributable to Santelli's delivery or language. Plenty of politicians and economists have expressed desperation in the current economic climate. And hardly anyone batted an eye when Thomas Friedman wrote that the request by GM and Chrysler for $20 billion in government aid made him feel like the country is "subsidizing the losers."

Rather, Santelli managed to cut to the heart of what many people throughout the country are thinking: The hard-earned money of the "silent majority" is bailing out the decisions of the careless few. Consider the results of a Rasmussen poll released on Monday: "Fifty-five percent of American adults say the federal government would be rewarding bad behavior by providing mortgage subsidies to financially troubled homeowners."

Santelli articulated something where the GOP has offered little more than token opposition. In the face of a popular president and a difficult economy, the GOP still looks like the party of old ideas. First, they regurgitated the "tax cuts, less government" talking points during the stimulus debate. Then Santelli displayed the competence and passion the GOP could not.

But is Santelli right?

Let's ask Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a man once referred to as "probably the most important economist in the world" by the New York Times Magazine.

He's worried, he told me, that discussions on the economy are "very formalistic. They're

real debates - you know, tax cut or spending increase - but they don't get to the values.

"That is, what kind of country do we want to live in? What kind of world do we want to live in? That's what we should be debating, not the formal issue of whether the stimulus on a tax cut is this or that or spending by next Sept. 30. It's what kind of world do we need to create right now given all the challenges we have?"

I think Santelli got closer to that question than anyone on the right. We know President Obama was listening. The question is, was the GOP?

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. He can be heard from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.

Michael Smerconish

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