Over at The Nation, Chris Hayes very nicely sums up the perspective of many individual members of Congress, Democratic and Republican, towards the bailout negotiations:
1) The bailout is unpopular: The polling on this is muddled, but the polling is completely dependent on the wording. Every single lawmaker is getting barraged with hundreds of calls a day from constituents, and no one is saying: “Please give lots of money to Wall Street!”
2) The crisis is terrifying to lawmakers: They’re getting insanely heavy pressure from the vulturous Wall St lobbyists buzzing around the Hill (“there’s a gazillion of ’em!” a staffer told me earlier in the week) and also, dire and sober warnings from Bernanke and Paulson behind closed doors. Basically, if you don’t pass this, they’re being told, you’ll have the blood of another Great Depression on your hands.
3) Ergo: The optimal outcome for all lawmkers is to vote against the bill and still have it pass. That way you get to have your cake and eat it, too. But what we’re dealing with is something akin to a massive prisoner’s dilemma. Everyone wants to get into the decision quadrant of voting against the bill and having it pass, but of course if everyone rushes for that quadrant, then the bill doesn’t pass and therefore, no one ends up in that quadrant. If you’re Pelosi and the Democrats you can’t allow the Republican wingnuts off the hook by creating the space for them to crowd into the sweet spot, and then use the bill to run against you. That’s why things are so tenuous and difficult to game out.
This is pretty much what Ed Kilgore was warning about earlier this week. If the bailout passes, the consequences will be bad and very tangible, particularly since nobody’s under the illusion that a bailout will prevent a recession. Nobody knows how much worse things would actually get if the bailout fails. So if it does pass, you definitely want to be recorded as voting against it, particularly if you are vulnerable Republican.
The “prisoner’s dilemma” Chris refers to is a famous game theory conundrum in which it will always be in the selfish interest of one accomplice to a crime to betray the other, even though cooperation would produce a better overall result.